IT IS either a classic urban myth or creatures as exotic as black panthers and pumas really are roaming our countryside. Some say it’s nonsense but reported sightings of big cats in Hampshire have risen sharply in recent years.

The sheer number of eyewitness accounts uncovered by a Daily Echo investigation is certainly impressive.

Pulling together records from the Forestry Commission through a Freedom of Information request, and records from Hampshire Police and Big Cats in Britain, we have compiled a list of 82 sightings.

Reports vary from a black panther-like creature which bizarrely “ran through school grounds” in Southampton in January 2003 to a beige puma which “bared its teeth aggressively” at Basingstoke train station in March 2004.||

Click here to read the full list of big cat sightings

Then there was the time in September 2005, when a black panther or jaguar was allegedly spotted as it very calmly “strolled in front of a car” at the Broadlands Estate in Romsey.

The number of sightings of the mysterious beasts is even higher according to other big cat enthusiasts.

In recent times there have been an average 30 sightings every year in Hampshire, says Danny Bamping of the British Big Cats Society.

He is in absolutely no doubt that big cats exist in the wild. Why?

“Because I’ve seen one, because there is far too much evidence to suggest that they do exist and hardly any to suggest that they don’t,” he says.

As well as an average 2,300 sightings reported to his organisation every year, Bamping believes definitive paw prints, hair samples, droppings and animal attacks all prove big cats’ existence in the UK.

The Government do not officially recognise the existence of big cats. How can they, with no conclusive evidence?

Yet Bamping believes they are “covering it up and have been for decades, they are worried about scaring people and having to pay farmers who lose livestock”.

He adds chillingly: “Sadly I think it may take an ‘unfortunate event’ before they actually do anything.”

Fellow enthusiast Paul Westwood, of Big Cats Monitors, takes a much more cautious approach. He says he has heard of just three sightings in Hampshire in the last three years.

Click here to read the full list of big cat sightings

“There are a few big cats in this country but we are only talking small numbers,” he says. “It’s not possible for there to be a great number in the UK, it’s too small to support a large population of big cats. One cat could be responsible for all of the sightings in most of southern England.”

He thinks the vast majority of sightings – which usually involve a black-coloured cat – are simply a case of mistaken identity.

“From my own experience of interviewing people, I personally think that the vast majority of sightings are actually domestic animals like dogs and cats.

“People read about big cat sightings in the press and then when they see a dark animal in the distance, they think they’ve seen the elusive big cat.”

It is widely believed that sightings of big cats in the UK could be a result of the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act that prohibits members of the public keeping them as pets.

After the legislation many owners simply turfed their exotic beasts out into the countryside to fend for themselves.

But Westwood believes there is only a very small chance that animals native to faraway lands could have successfully bred in this country.

Instead, he thinks one explanation could be that smaller cats, such as Asian leopard cats or servals, escaped and mated with domestic cats and produced a new hybrid species.

Or that people could still be illegally importing exotic pets into the country and releasing them into the wild when they grow too big.

They are just two of a myriad of theories, but whatever the truth is Paul is pretty sure there aren’t many big cats in Britain.

“It doesn’t really ring true that people are seeing all these cats,” he says. “People in Africa don’t see leopards normally, because they are such elusive creatures, but in this country they seem to be around every corner!”

Yet you don’t have to look far to find those who are passionate advocates of big cats.

“The sightings are increasing, very much so,” says Merrily Harpur, of Big Cats in Britain and author of Roaring Dorset! Encounters With Big Cats. “People are more willing to claim to have seen a big cat these days. People used to get laughed at, or they thought they would be, so they were more reluctant to let on in case people thought they were mad. Now I think everyone has seen a big cat or at least knows someone who has. It is much more acceptable because there have been so many of them spotted.”

Click here to read the full list of big cat sightings