THEY'RE powerful predators, as elusive as they are intelligent.

But while not everybody is convinced wild areas of Cumbria have become a habitat for illegally released big cats, Sharon Larkin-Snowden has no doubts.

"The cold weather brings them down from the hills," says Sharon, 49, from Cockermouth. "There have been big cats in the Thirlmere area for years." Sharon speaks of "numerous reports" of a black leopard roaming in the area, as well as sightings of other non-native big cats.

In recent months, she says, there has been compelling evidence to back up that startling conclusion: specifically, several sheep killings in the area, with the carcasses strongly suggesting a 'big cat' predator.

"It's just the way they've been killed," explains Sharon. "It's the way they've been bitten: there are teeth marks in the face, suggesting it's been a predator.

"Dogs don't do that.

"The cats have been in the Thirlmere area for years. I've got trail cameras in the area at the moment and I'm regularly checking them."

Asked for more details, Sharon says there are reports of a "tan-coloured" puma, a large charcoal grey big cat and - most intriguing of all - a pure white one, which Sharon believes is the product of a cross-breeding pair.

There have also been sporadic sightings in Carlisle and Rockliffe, and the latest one was near the school at Kirkbride - a "massive long cat" with a big tail, distinctively hooked up at the end.

"People see them but they just don't report them for fear of ridicule.

Sharon continues to passionately investigate sightings and speaks of one former private zoo owner who confessed to her that he released his big cats more than a decade ago.

"Often, we don't publicise it because there are trophy-hunters out there. We don't want people to go out with guns to shoot them: an injured leopard is s dangerous animal.

"Generally, these animals don't bother people.

"They're brilliant at staying hidden, and know that there are people around before people ever see them.

"There's enough food in the UK - rabbits, deer, pheasants - for them to need to bother people.

"There's only a small pocket of these cats, which have been released into the wild.

But obviously, they'll breed.

"The sightings still keep coming every year.

"They were owned as pets but once they brought the Dangerous Wild Animal Act in in 1976 people started to release them.

"It's been happening over the last 40 years ago. I won't be checking my cameras on Christmas Day but I will be out checking them Boxing Day. I've got a camera at Thirlmere and one at Kendal."

* Sharon is administrator for the Big Cats Cumbria Facebook Page.