ARE they pumas, leopards, lynx or simply the figments of overactive imaginations?
Whatever the answer to the phenomenon of big cat sightings, newly released documents reveal the full extent of the lengths police are going to prove the mysterious beasts exist.
Data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveals almost 200 sightings were reported by members of the public to Scottish police forces between 2000 and 2006. Police in Grampian and Fife recorded the highest number of sightings, 55 and 42 respectively. Other hotspots include Lothian, with 30 sightings, and Strathclyde, with 27.
The documents reveal that the police are using extensive resources to investigate claims of big cat sightings. Helicopters have been deployed on four occasions by Strathclyde Police to patrol areas following an alleged sighting. The documents also show how police collect samples for examination by respected academics.
This week experts will discuss the findings at the UK's first conference on big cats.
Event organisers welcomed the police data, which they said provided vital clues in the search for the elusive creatures.
But the true number of sightings is significantly higher, warn experts. "This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Shaun Stevens, a Scottish representative of Big Cats in Britain (BCIB), a group dedicated to researching the alleged existence of big cats and host of the conference in Hull.
"We register three sightings on average a week in Scotland. Many people never report what they've seen. I believe there could be up to 40 big cats roaming wild in Scotland.
"All the hundreds of people that have reported sightings can't be wrong. Someone has got to be telling the truth. Now it's just a matter of getting proof."
For the first time, this year the group will erect trigger cameras in remote areas of Scotland in an attempt to finally capture a definitive image of the black beasts.
Several theories exist on the creatures' origin. One is that the felines are descendants of animals released more than 30 years ago by individuals who didn't want to comply with regulations in the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1972.
Others believe the animals escaped from registered ownership or that consumer demand for designer cats spawned a new generation of hybrids.
But the most radical theory claims there is a native species of wild cat in Scotland that has not been identified to date. According to BCIB, people consistently give the same description: round head, black body and pointed ears.
"We are getting more and more sightings of these strange black beasts that don't fit descriptions of any known species," said Stevens.
"The only black cats of similar size to these descriptions are leopards or jaguars, but they have rounded ears. These cats are not big enough to be a panther but are bigger than a domestic cat. It's a mystery."
Fife, with its dry climate and rural landscape, provides a perfect habitat for wild big cats, according to Mark Maylin, wildlife crime officer at Fife Constabulary.
There have been numerous reports of big cats in the Kingdom in recent years.
Last year Maylin's team believed they had the first conclusive proof of a big cat, the "Beast of Balbirnie", on the loose in Fife. Police officers presented a plaster cast of a pawprint verified by experts who believe it is from an 18-month-old exotic large cat - possibly a black leopard.
"We have massive areas of forest in Fife. There is sufficient cover and food for them to survive," said Maylin, who believes the lynx and black leopard are roaming Scotland. "I don't believe people are making this up. I'd say two-thirds of all sightings are genuine."
But in Grampian, another alleged big cat "hotspot", police officers vehemently disputed the claims.
"I don't believe for a minute that there are breeding big cats in Scotland. If there are, why have we not had one killed on our busy roads yet? Why have we not had a fully recovered skeleton? Why are we not seeing livestock killed in large numbers?" said wildlife officer Dave MacKinnon of Grampian Police.
Dr Andrew Kitchener, curator of birds and mammals at the National Museums of Scotland is also sceptical. The world expert on mammals appealed to the public to come forward with evidence.
"I've heard of people accumulating evidence in their freezers at home. But so far no-one has come forward. Until we get hard evidence it's impossible to say conclusively whether there are big cats are in Scotland," said Kitchener.
"We keep hearing about these bodies, which later disappear. Any footprints we've examined have always had a different explanation, often that of a dog.
"I've read newspaper reports of alleged big cat sightings. But people are actually describing the Scottish wild cat. They don't realise the animal is significantly bigger than the domestic cat.
"I am not suggesting that people are making this up. But it's difficult for people to accurately identify animals when looking at them in the distance in the dark."
'The animal bounded towards me at great speed'
ON January 16 at 11.30pm, security officer John Golder was patrolling the Manse Estate in Galston, Ayrshire, when he suddenly spotted a large animal he thought resembled a cat.
"I shone my torch on to the playing field and immediately lit up a set of eyes, which then stopped and turned to look directly at my torch beam," he said. "Immediately the animal began to bound towards me at great speed. I became spooked, turned round and ran into the Portakabin, blocking the door with a metal bar."
Scared, Golder rang BCIB. A representative appeared on the scene at 12.15am to find the security guard visibly shaking.
"It reminded me of a cat. It bounded. I don't know any other animal that would move like this," said Golder.
"The eyes were a yellowy-blue colour and bright - almost like a star. They seemed to be about two and a half to three feet off the ground."
Golder stayed in the cabin for 20 minutes before venturing outside again. But before he dared open the door, he turned off all the lights and peered into the darkness for signs of any unexpected wandering beasts.
Reported sightings of big cats in the Galston area stretch back over several decades. In fact, this was not the first time Golder claims to have seen this big cat. Several months earlier, the security guard alleges he saw the same creature walking across a field.