IN SEARCH OF BLACK BEAST|jon_downes||01/13/05 at 13:37:35|jon_downes|xx|0||IN SEARCH OF BLACK BEAST


ITíS BIG, itís black and itís breeding ó Bob Brown is convinced of that.

For the 59-year-old hasnít just seen one beast, or even two ó heís seen four big cats in the area in the past 18 months.  Now Bob is determined to catch the panther on film when he visits Biggin, near Ashbourne, in the summer.

 He says the beauty spot is definitely harbouring a fierce beast.

 "Itís always around the same sort of area, out in the countryside, on a public walking track and near woods.

 "Itís a magnificant jet black colour, with a long swinging tail that sweeps the ground.

 "Sometimes Iíve seen it jump over stone walls straight in front of my car. It clears them as if theyíre nothing at all and then just glides away.

 "The last time I saw it, I donít mind admitting I was a bit scared. But Iíd love to get it on my camera, Iím going to make sure I do," he says.

 For years, the mysterious Black Beast has captured imaginations across the region, resulting in many tales such as this one.

 In October 2003, BBC1ís Inside Out programme featured an alleged panther roaming a field in Measham.

 Three years ago, two Swadlincote police officers claimed they ran into a big cat in the National Forest, and in January, 2002, Woodville woman Susan Foster said she saw a beast prowling the side of the A511 near Bretby Lane.

 And yet Bob, from Willington, still has a hard time getting people to believe him.

 "Itís like telling someone youíve seen a spaceship. I was glad when my wife saw it too because then at least I had someone to back me up," he says.

 Bobís wife Irene, 67, adds: "I did think Bob was having me on when he kept saying heíd seen this panther, and when I eventually saw it I couldnít quite believe it for a minute or two. Iíve never seen anything like it ó it was scary."

 While no-one has ever actually caught a big cat in the Midlands, sightings have increased by 117 per cent in the past year.

 Experts say there is only one explanation for it ó the beasts are breeding.

 "The figures certainly point in that direction," says Danny Bamping, founder of the Big Cats Society. Weíve had sightings of big cats with cubs and have evidence of large pawprints next to smaller pawprints, and from the number of uneaten corpses, it appears that adult cats are teaching their young to hunt rather than just killing for food."

 BBC1ís Big Cat Watch, which ends tonight, captures some spectacular lions, leopards and cheetahs in their African environment.

 But incredibly, there are now estimated to be between 50 and 100 big cats roaming Britain.

 It is thought they are former pets released by their owners because they could not meet the strict regulations imposed by the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act.

 The countryside around Burton and South Derbyshire is ideal for the creatures because there are plenty of abandoned mining shafts and dense woodland for them to hide in.

 Bosses at the RSPCA are concerned. If left to breed without control, there is a chance someone could be attacked.

 A spokesman for the charityís East Midlands branch, says: "We do get a lot of big cat sightings around these parts and always take them very seriously.

 "Although it is alarming, we would urge the public not to panic. We would like to reassure people that we are continuing to monitor sightings of these animals."

 Jack Ward, regional director of Derbyshireís National Farmersí Union, is anxious. As well as feeding on wildlife, big cats are known to attack sheep and cattle.

 He says: "These cats do have the potential to do damage to farm livestock and also other wildlife in this region.

 "Itís not natural to have them roaming around in our countryside and the phenomenon needs to be controlled."

 But big cat specialist Mr Bamping believes there is nothing to worry about.

 "Even where there are big populations in the wild in North America, people very rarely see them.

 "If you do happen to come across one, just stand still and watch it. Donít shout or threaten it in any way, and make sure you report it."

 Bob, who is a fan of televisionís Big Cat Watch, is not convinced.

 He said: "Iíve seen what these cats can do in the wild and I think having them here could be very dangerous. Lots of families like to go walking in the area where Iíve seen this panther, and Iím worried it could attack.

 "Experts say they wonít harm you, but I wouldnít risk it."