THOSE who claim to have seen a big cat prowling around the county have at times been ridiculed – but there is one wildlife expert who believes them.

Pc Simon Towers, wildlife crime officer for Thames Valley Police, yesterday said he was convinced some of the big cat sightings were true.

In fact he believes he’s spotted one.

Pc Towers said: “I know a lot of people are sceptical but there are too many reports for it not to be true.

“We’ve found footprints and I think I’ve seen the tail end of it.

“It’s thought to be a big puma that comes here every winter.”

Mr Towers said the majority of the sightings of the county’s visitor came from West Oxfordshire and around Charlbury in particular.

He said: “In 1976, the government passed the Dangerous Animals Act which stopped people from keeping tigers and lions at home.

“And so many of them went missing or were released into the wild.

“It is totally feasible that there is a big cat population in the countryside.

“And we have a few zoos and animal parks in Oxfordshire, so that could be what is attracting them.”

Mark Fraser, chairman of the Big Cats in Britain Society, said the idea was certainly feasible.

He added: “Obviously we need hard evidence to back it up, but we have one or two sightings of big cats every day in the UK.

“Many of these are mistakes, but a large number cannot be explained and come from reliable sources like zoologists or police officers.

“There has always been a lot of money in the trade of exotic animals, so it would not be surprising if these animals are in the wild.”

Mr Towers has been the chief wildlife officer for the area for 12 years and deals with all kinds of animal crime – from rogue taxidermists to exotic species.

A major problem facing police at the moment is hare coursing, which Mr Towers said was common in Oxfordshire.

Hare coursing is when dogs are let loose to chase wild hares, and bets are made on which dog will kill the animal first.

Mr Towers said: “This is a big problem in Oxfordshire, with people coming from as far afield as South Wales.

“But it is cruel and we rely on the public to let us know so we can catch these people.”

In 2010, 10 people have been convicted of hare coursing in Oxfordshire, receiving fines of up to £5,000 and having their vehicles and dogs seized.

Mr Towers said: “People don’t realise the police deal with animal crime, but we are the main prosecutor in the UK. I urge people to get in touch and we can act on their information to stamp out cruelty in Oxfordshire.”

Have you seen the big cat in Oxfordshire? If so, call Rhianne Pope on 01865 425411.