Recent visits to the wilds of Dartford Heath and the marshes of Higham and Cliffe prove without a shadow of a doubt that there is enough cover in the county of Kent to hide a handful of elusive animals. When one considers the amount of forest still left, especially in places such as Ashford, Canterbury, and neighbouring Sussex, I'm rather surprised how many people seem to think that there's nowhere in county for a large cat to conceal itself. Paw prints and scat (faeces) are relatively easy to find on remote pathways. Paw prints can of course be distorted in snow and ruined on bridle paths by dogs, horses, people, bikes, but they can be found. In most cases the paw print of a leopard or puma will be bereft of claw marks - cats retract their claws but dogs do not - dog prints are symmetrical in shape and the claws will be blunt. When a cat does throw its claws out, usually to grip, they'll often show as tiny pin pricks around the toes. The main pad is often 'away' from the toes whereas you'll find a dog pad seems to be pushed up behind the toes. The images show a sketch of a print and also an actual 'big cat' print found near Tonbridge, and cast.
Left - sketch of cougar print. Note three lobes on base of pad. Also, prints can be distorted as the rear paw of the cat comes forward to step in the front impression.
Left, leopard prints cast in Penshurst.
With regards to other prints it's always worth getting used to the marks made by native species - badger, fox, deer. It's amazing how many photographs I get sent when we've had a heavy snow fall. As snow thaws prints distort as they melt and one animal that often leaves a fist-sized impression in the snow is a rabbit! Although the print would be bereft of a main pad, when a rabbit sits on its haunches it leaves seemingly four toe marks, this is caused by the front two feet and the hind feet. If you are unfamilar with animal tracks and signs it's worth looking on the internet or buying a book to guide you and then you'll know what to eliminate when looking for a cat. Other evidence left by large cats would be scratch marks on trees. Badgers marks trees up to a couple of feet, and deer often mark bark with their antlers, but a cat such as a leopard will often reach several feet up a bark not only to sharpen its claws but a male leopard sweats from his feet, excreting a scent from a gland as a marker. Bark will often be peeled back or there will be deep score marks. In some cases it will be worth looking around the base of the tree in case the cat had shed a claw.
Hair samples are also worth taking - a couple of years ago hair found in woods in Devon were analysed and proven to belong to a melanistic leopard. Hair can often be found on game trails in England where deer, foxes etc, travel through wiry bushes or under barbed wire fences etc. Hair can also be found on the carcass of prey.
Finally, we have scat. Leopard, puma, lynx, like any animal drop scat. Their scat reflects what they've eaten - when dry ,the scat of a leopard, which can reach lengths of 8 or so inches, will appear in chain formation and be greysih in complexion and it'll be full of hair and bone. Usually deer and rabbit fur is evident. The image below was photographed by a James Mitson who has proven to be a vital contact in the heavily wooded areas of Tunbridge Wells. James has photographed deer, fox and rabbit kills and numerous scat. It's always worth looking on countryside pathways, especially near to where dogs have desposited. cats mark their territory. On one occasion a huge piece of scat found has actually be trodden on by a dog walker!
Left, leopard scat - photo by James Mitson - sample is full of deer fur. Three separate zoologists agreed this scat was from a large cat species.