Many books have been written about claims that one or more species of exotic big cats exist in the wild in the British countryside. Some of them have made interesting reading but none, to date, have come close to Rick Minter’s BIG CATS: FACING BRITAIN’S WILD PREDATORS. Published in 2011 by Whittles Publishing Ltd, I have obtained a soft back copy of the 214 page work.
While Rick believes that he has made a couple of observations that strongly suggest he had seen big cats in the leopard/puma size range in the wild in Britain, he has wisely discounted these personal events from influencing his study. Instead he systematically discusses the extensive range of anecdotal sighting reportage available from a number of areas of the country. The great strength of this book is that it is structured to examine the value of sighting reports or anecdotes, and physical sign such as spoor and the remains of suspected kills. There are no rambling speculations about possible origins of animals that might be responsible for the phenomenon but a very well organised history of big cat ownership in Britain. He then examines how changes in the law are, in all probability, the origin for a number of illegal and therefore highly secretive releases.
A number of people, especially population biologists presumably with limited field experience, are very ready to publicly doubt that a small founder population of a medium to large mammal species would have sufficient genetic variability to not only breed but eventually become abundant. The example of the Red Fox in Australia is a case in point. Red Foxes were introduced to Australia over a period of a few decades in the middle to late nineteenth century for the purpose of riding to hounds and hunting them. This was primarily in the state of Victoria and only by the very wealthy Masters of the few Hunts that existed at that time.
Dingos and kangaroos gave good long runs and made for exciting hunting but were inclined to bale up and kill or damage a number of very valuable hounds before being despatched. Red Foxes were considered to be more desirable as they didn’t damage foxhounds and by dint of their scent gave fairly predictable runs.
At great expense small numbers were imported over a few decades and released. Those that survived the hounds not only bred but thrived. With the dingo in very low numbers due to constant persecution from the start of European settlement, they provided little or no competition or predation. Further, with an abundance of small native mammals and sheep carrion, the fox spread across the south eastern corner of the Australian continent by the time of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. They were in the far west of West Australia and southern Queensland by the start of the Great Depression.
Other examples of founder populations of significant species that were very low in numbers initially but are now abundant can be given. I refer of course to not only the infamous rabbit but the feral water buffalo and sambar and chital deer. These species certainly display no lack of vigour despite the limited gene pool of their introduced ancestors.
Professionally Rick Minter is a science educator. His capacity for both listening to people and imparting information is very obvious. I think Rick’s sincerity, regarding the right to be heard by those who believe they have witnessed a notable wildlife event that was personally disturbing and of public import, is a real strength of his book. Further, the profiling of serious researchers of the subject is very valuable. The seminal events leading to a commitment to spend time and money in systematic investigation is discussed and the major effect it has had on their personal lives made known. Seeing an out of place large carnivore can indeed be a life changing event!
This publication has some of the best illustrations of large mammal kills I have seen to date in a reference work of this kind. After more than three decades of investigating stock kills and hunting stock killers I am not speaking lightly. Notwithstanding, the only real draw backs in such a high quality publication are the lack of citations with a formal bibliography and an index. However the literature, relevant to the subject matter of the book having been consulted by the author, is discussed at length in the chapter entitled THE LORE OF THE CATS.
BRITISH BIG CATS: FACING BRITAINS WILD PREDATORS is an indispensable work for any one with a serious interest in out of place carnivores. Coupled with Chad Arment’s recent North American work, VARMINTS, researchers of out of place big cats have two marvellous tools to assist them in coming years. They have universal application.
Simon Townsend 2012