A NEW sighting of a big cat, said to be the size of a large dog, has been reported near Stonehaven.

David Matheson told the Leader that friends visiting from Montrose had been "shocked" so see the mystery animal near his Rickarton home.

He said the 'big cat' crossed the road in front them and that he had noticed "something" in and around the area while out walking his dogs.

He has also seen a number of young lambs which had been killed in the fields near Rickarton.

But Richard Holman-Baird of the Rickarton Estate cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the mystery beast.

He said: "One hears of sightings of large cats occasionally – it seems to come around periodically every two to three years.

"The answer if you talk to keepers is that these night sightings are often caused by the shadow of the animal itself in lights, making it appear to be big.

"People genuinely believe what they have seen; the only trouble is it never seems to be substantiated."

He added that he was "always open to believe" there are big cats in the area but had yet to see proof for himself.

"I've never seen it and my shepherd has never seen it," he said. "I've not heard of any more lambs being found dead than you would normally expect.

"Over the years a number of my gamekeepers have shot what they were convinced was a big cat, only to find that it was a normal sized feral animal - and they're people used to seeing a lot of animals in spotlights.

"I suspect this needs to be treated with some caution."

In recent years the Mearns has been a hot spot for 'big cat sightings'. As the Leader reported in February last year, a local woman saw a mystery animal, which she described as three feet long and dark coloured, just yards from her home in Crawton. She said it was smooth-haired and sleek and "ran so fast it was unbelievable".

A week later, marketing and PR consultant Elma McMenemy, who lives at Barras, had a close encounter with the beast, which she described as similar to a panther, on Cheyne Hill while out walking her dogs.

Mrs McMenemy (56), said the cat was "completely black, with a shiny, smooth coat" and the same height as one of her deerhounds - about 28 inches tall.

A report was also received of a 'big cat' in the Old Town area of Stonehaven and there were a number of reported sightings of a cat dubbed "The Beast of the Mearns" around Stonehaven in the late 1990s, in the Mineralwell area and near Mackie Academy.

The Dangerous Wild Animals Act in 1976 to ensure that anyone keeping an animal such as a big cat would keep it in purpose-built secure accommodation. It is believed many owners who found they could not cope with the cost and commitment of these animals simply released them into the wild, where they may have bred.