Panther on the prowl? Harpenden man spots a big cat near Luton Airport

PUBLISHED: 11:56 13 October 2016 | UPDATED: 11:56 13 October 2016

Could there be a Beast of Hertfordshire? Residents have reported seeing a panther (file photo) in Harpenden and Hitchin

Could there be a Beast of Hertfordshire? Residents have reported seeing a panther (file photo) in Harpenden and Hitchin

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A Harpenden man has been left pondering whether a panther is on the prowl after spotting a big cat near Luton Airport - one of several recent sightings in the area.

Luke Massey, of St Albans, is a wildlife photographer who travels the world, taking photos of leopards and other animals. Photo courtesy of Luke MasseyLuke Massey, of St Albans, is a wildlife photographer who travels the world, taking photos of leopards and other animals. Photo courtesy of Luke Massey

Iain MacDonald told the Herts Advertiser: “I had a rather interesting experience whilst out jogging on Sunday (9), to the north of Harpenden, when a big cat – I am pretty sure it was a panther – crossed the road directly in front of me.”

It is the latest in a string of recent alleged sightings of a panther as this paper has learned that three weeks ago, one is believed to have been spotted in nearby Hitchin, only 15 miles away.

Iain explained that on Sunday, “I was jogging, out towards Luton Airport, in Chiltern Green.

“I was running along a quiet country road, with hardly any cars, where there was woodland on each side and this animal loped across the road, about 50 metres in front of me.

Luke Massey, of St Albans, is a wildlife photographer who travels the world, taking photos of leopards and other animals. Photo courtesy of Luke MasseyLuke Massey, of St Albans, is a wildlife photographer who travels the world, taking photos of leopards and other animals. Photo courtesy of Luke Massey

“It didn’t look at me or anything, but it was going from one wooded area to another, on the other side.”

Iain said he was “so surprised that I didn’t register it straight away, and it took a while to work out what I saw. It was a very large cat, about four to five feet long, and had a very long tail. It was walking low across the road – I sped up a little bit!”

Iain said that he often jogs in the area, “but I haven’t seen something like that before. I didn’t take a photo, as I was jogging”.

He added: “It was black and I’m 100 per cent sure that it was a panther. Everyone I have told thinks I must have been drinking, but I’m absolutely convinced about what I saw. Some people have had big cats as pets, and it was substantially bigger than a [domestic] cat!”

And in a surprise twist, it appears that Iain is not the only person to have apparently spotted the beast.

When this paper contacted award-winning wildlife photographer Luke Massey, of St Albans, to ask for his opinion on the sighting, he said he had been trying to establish whether a big cat was on the loose in Hitchin after similar reports several weeks ago.

Luke has travelled the world photographing big cats, including leopards, usually as part of conservation projects.

He had initially been “sceptical” when “various people in Hitchin said they saw a panther” especially as none had taken a photo of the animal.

Luke said: “They saw it three weeks ago in Hitchin. But I’m very sceptical. A black panther is a melanistic version of a leopard – basically the opposite of an albino, and they are incredibly rare. I have loads of doubts.”

After being told that a panther had been seen with a fallow deer, he installed some motion-activated cameras where the deer regularly roam in Hitchin.

Although he will not reveal the exact location of his cameras, Luke said: “They have been in place for two weeks, and there has been no panther photographed. But I did photograph a rare waterbird.”

Upon hearing about the Harpenden sighting, Luke said: “Geographically, a panther could walk from Hitchin to Harpenden. It is perfectly feasible, as they have large ranges.”

The photographer said it was also possible that it might have followed fallow deer towards Harpenden and Luton.

He has spoken about the Hitchin sightings with his friend, television presenter and naturalist Chris Packham, whom he accompanied to Malta two years ago to campaign against the annual mass slaughter of migratory birds.

Luke said that Chris was also sceptical, because of the panther’s rarity.

But Luke was at pains to point out that, if it was indeed a panther, “it will be no threat to people. It will be petrified of people and will actively try to avoid them. They don’t ambush people, and if it does approach you, just make a big noise.”

Luke said that panthers “don’t roar. They make a gruff sound, like they are coughing up a hairball”.

When asked about what things would signal the presence of a panther, he replied: “If it was a male, it would be scent-marking; they will poo in prominent areas, for example well-worn animal trails, paths or roads.”

• Have you spotted the panther in Herts? Please email details to hertsad@archant.co.uk

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