BRITAIN'S environment watchdog has ruled out the existence of big cats in the wilds of the Westcountry, despite countless sighting claims by members of the public.
Natural England said it was "confident that there is no breeding population of big cats" in the UK after releasing a list of the exotic species reported to it by the public.
But WMN wildlife expert Trevor Beer, who has been researching the animals since the 1980s, said the agency was wrong to write off thousands of genuine sightings.
"The big cats are out there," Mr Beer said last night. "I don't know why Natural England is going down this line – they are just making fools of themselves."
The agency's list contained several reports from Devon and Cornwall over the past five years, ranging from big cats to wild boar and even a wallaroo – a kind of kangaroo.
Photograph of an alleged big cat taken near St Austell.
The document, released under the Freedom of Information Act, shows the government agency took "no action" on the "inconclusive" big cat sightings.
However, the numerous sightings of wild boar in Devon, linked to a deliberate release from a farm at South Molton, were regarded as confirming the existence of "exotic species".
A spokesman for Natural England said it collected records of "alleged sightings" and investigated "where necessary".
"Non-native species are one of the most serious threats to global biodiversity," he said, "and it is important that we find out about any new threat as early as possible."
He said the agency had not compiled a "secret dossier" of big cat sightings and had published data from 2001-2007 on its website. That was being updated to include the 32 big cat sightings from 2008 and 2009.
"The claimed sightings since 2001 include a wide range of species – chipmunks, coypus, wild boar and raccoons," the spokesman added.
"From time-to-time we also receive occasional reports from members of the public of alleged big cats. However, none of the sightings of big cats has ever been confirmed and the evidence of all the sightings we have been asked to look at has either been inconclusive or attributed to other causes.
"From time to time big cats do escape from zoos or other collections and are usually recaptured very quickly. We are confident there is no breeding population of big cats in this country and it is very unlikely that there are any big cats at large in the English countryside."
Hundreds of big cat sightings have been claimed in Devon and Cornwall over the years although photographic and physical evidence has never been definitive.
Theories on the origins of the animals in the wild vary, although many believe they are descended from big cats dumped in the region's countryside following the introduction of the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which clamped down on the exotic creatures being kept as pets.
Some believe the cats released into the wild may have bred with native wild cats, creating hybrid animals which are now being seen in increased numbers.
However Mr Beer, from Barnstaple, North Devon, said he had seen several big cats and is confident that puma and leopard are surviving in the wild.
"There are no issues with the climate," Mr Beer said, "and they are living off the fat of the land."
The WMN's Living Cornwall editor Simon Parker, who has reported on sightings in Cornwall since the 1990s, is convinced a number of big cats did at one time roam Bodmin Moor – even if they no longer do.
Mr Parker, who claims to have seen a young lynx near Siblyback Lake some years ago, says while sightings appear to have decreased in recent years, they were common a decade ago.
"Back around 2000, farmers and other people not known for making things up were reporting seeing big cats from Bolventor to St Cleer," he said.
"The fact that the numbers have fallen in recent years either means people aren't reporting them or that the creatures have died out. I think it's probably the latter."
Mr Parker, whose children's novel Beast is due to be published this year, added: "Natural England might know about England, but they clearly don't know about Cornwall.
"If one of their researchers spent a hour at the bar of a Bodmin Moor pub they'd soon hear detailed accounts of encounters with these animals."