Do giant paw prints mean big cat is on the prowl in Capital?

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THEY are shadowy creatures who create claws for concern for farmers across the UK.

But now Edinburgh might have its own big cat on the prowl.

Residents of Newhaven have been left feline distinctly uncomfortable after the discovery of huge paw prints in the snow.

They believe an animal - like a puma or lynx - may be behind the tracks and experts say it is possible the mystery cats may be venturing into the Capital to search for food.

Nora Robertson, 81, who has lived in the area since childhood, discovered the prints on an early morning walk near her home in Andrew Wood Court.

"It was still dark so I had my torch with me, and the light reflected off one of these large prints," she said.

"I followed the track all the way to my neighbour's garden, which showed it had jumped up over a wall.

"I've never seen anything like this. We get a lot of foxes around here and there is a lot of woodland and unused paths."

Sightings of big cats themselves and their prints are fairly common in Scotland, particularly in Perthshire and Fife, where recent pursuits of the Perthshire Puma and the Beast of Balbirnie have taken place.

Big cat experts, who keep a register of sightings, said frequent reports of the creatures were made in the wider Lothian area.

But sceptics have often pointed out that if they did exist, much like the myth of the Loch Ness Monster or UFOs, conclusive photographic evidence would surely by now exist.

George Redpath, a member of Cupar-based Big Cats Scotland, said: "It's unlikely but not impossible.

"We have been getting more sightings in Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow.

"Perhaps - as foxes have - they have come into cities more to scavenge for food, particularly after the freezing weather we've had over the last months.

"It can be difficult to tell from prints in the snow, it can sometimes distort the real size of a print. It is hard to confirm any suspicion like this until there is a conclusive photograph, but the sightings continue. Over the weekend we had one reported from the Bilston area.

"We just don't know what type of cat they could be. In Scotland we've had puma, lynx and possibly leopards."

Other residents of the street also noticed the larger-than-normal paw prints.

Maureen Porteous, 71, said she spotted a large cat in her garden during the summer, but did not think much of it until seeing the tracks.

"I just don't know, it all seems strange, and these prints are certainly much bigger than a normal cat," she said. "Last summer I looked out to the garden and caught sight of a really big cat, but forgot about it until now.

"My own cat has also been behaving strangely over the weekend, it's never been away from the window but won't go out, which is unusual.

"It's as if something's really spooked it."

WILD AT HEART

The possibility of a Newhaven big cat is not a first for the Lothians.

In October 2005 a mystery "black beast" described as "panther-like" was hunted by police in Haddington. The incident came shortly after a similar animal had been seen in the Dunbar area, and after several big cat sightings near Roslin.

In 2004 a man claimed to have seen a large black cat in the grounds of Merchiston Castle School.

The Big Cats in Britain research group has estimated around 40 big cats are on the loose in Scotland.

Their existence is often put down to the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which ruled that such animals could not be kept without a licence. After it was passed, many owners are thought to have let their pets run wild.