SIGHTINGS of panthers and black cats are likely to become more common in Wiltshire, according to experts.

A study conducted by Beastwatch UK claims that more than 10,000 sightings of non-indigenous - not native to Britain - animals have been reported since 2000.

But the British Big Cat Society's Danny Bamping says the south west has emerged as the UK's hotspot for exotic beasts.

"You have quite a few lynx and black cats in Wiltshire and neighbouring counties such as Dorset and Somerset also certainly have their fair share," Mr Bamping said.

"The south west is a real hotspot in the country for sightings of unusual animals, and sightings are going up all the time."

The recent study, conducted by Beastwatch UK, said that almost 6,000 big cats, 3,389 sharks, more than 1,000 wild boar and 51 wallabies had been spotted in the UK over the last six years.

But Mr Bamping has poured scorn on reports in national newspapers yesterday that thousands of beasts are roaming the country.

He said: "We do get lots of big cat sightings, but a third of them are deemed pranks due to a lack of detail.

"There are certain big cats and exotic creatures that exist in Britain and there are healthy populations of wild boar, but in terms of some of the other animals in the study, I think they should be taken with a pinch of salt."

There have been numerous sightings of big cats across Wiltshire, many of them pre-dating Beastwatch UK's most recent survey.

One correspondent on the Swindon Advertiser's former Weird Wiltshire Big Cat Forum recalled seeing an 18lb Scottish wildcat being brought into a veterinary surgery in Blunsdon after being struck by a vehicle.

And in 2002, residents in Highworth and Covingham reported a string of big cat sightings.

Earlier the same year, farmers in Minety and Baydon told police several of their sheep and pigs had been killed and maimed in what they described as an incident that had all the hallmarks of a big cat attack.

The puma-like animal was dubbed the Minety Monster and was reportedly seen by Shaw resident June Roberts as she was walking her dog in Ravensroost Wood near Minety.

"I was petrified," said Mrs Roberts.

"At the time I thought, oh my God, I've seen a wild cat, how fantastic. Then I just wanted to get out of there."

Experts believe that many of the UK's large cats are pumas, lynx or panthers released after the introduction of the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which meant non-indigenous pets had to be kept under licence in suitable enclosures.