A DUNBRIDGE couple had an encounter with Hampshire's elusive big cat while dog walking.

Michael and Jackie Horne saw the black panther-like animal with a large tail in a meadow near a large private garden at Butts Green - close to the footpath linking Lockerley with Mottisfont and Dunbridge.

The couple spotted the creature at about 7.30am on Sunday. "It stayed there for quite a bit. I watched it through my binoculars. It was a very deep black and about 2ft tall and had quite a big tail. It was far too big for an ordinary cat. We were very surprised to see it. It was watching us for a while before it ran off," said Michael.

He and his wife had their springer spaniel with them at the time. Michael said he often takes his binoculars with him while out for stroll.

There have been numerous reports of a big cat-like animal roaming the mid-Test Valley area for some years with sightings at Lockerley, Mottisfont, Broughton, West Tytherley, West and East Dean, Nether Wallop, Little Somborne and Bossington.

David Taylor was walking his dogs at Frenchmoor Lane in East Dean in August when he had a brief encounter with the mysterious cat. Like others who have caught sight of the animal, he described it as jet black.

And in July a panther-like animal ran across a country lane at Nether Wallop in front of Christine Shepherd and her friend Dave Chant's car as they were driving back to Dunbridge.

A spokesman for the British Big Cat Society said he was not surprised at the sightings. He said the number of reported sightings nationwide was growing.

Big cat sightings in Hampshire have become quite common since the 1960s.