DNA belonging to a big cat has been identified on a sheep carcass found in Cumbria.

Locals have long speculated as to whether the so-called 'Beast of Cumbria' is just one or several big cats that slink in the shadows of the countryside.

Investigators have now obtained a vital piece of evidence to support the presence of at least one recently active in the county.

READ MORE: Nish Kumar, Josh Widdicombe visit The Westmorland Gazette

Last year Sharon Larkin-Snowden, an experienced Cumbrian big cat investigator, came upon a sheep carcass and saw what she described as a black panther close by.

After following up many big cat reports, she has discovered that deer and sheep carcasses predated by the big felines tend to be quite clinically consumed and neatly filleted.

They did not reveal the exact location of the carcass to due trust with the landowners.

Sharon said: "The combination of seeing the cat near the carcass area, and the carcass ticking boxes for what I’d expect from a big cat’s involvement, made me even more suspicious that this was potential evidence.

"I spoke with local farmers too and they felt there had been a big cat around the area recently".

She passed three swabs to expert and producer of Big Cat Conversations podcast Rick Minter who sent the samples to a specialist lab at the University of Warwick.

The university's School of Life Sciences centre offers a pioneering DNA analysis service utilised by many ecological consultancies, private individuals and wildlife enthusiasts.

The team, led by Professor Robin Allaby, tested the swabs and found that one indicated a panthera result, meaning it is from the genus of big cats, with two yielding fox DNA.

Professor Allaby said: "The DNA sequence is a short segment from the mitochondrion which is often used to distinguish different species of animal.

"The section we have sequenced is distinct to the group Panthera, which includes all the big cats  - lions, tigers, panthers, leopards.

"There was only a very small amount of DNA present, which again is not surprising. So we need more data from more samples to pin it down to a specific species."

The Mail: Documentary makers have discovered what they claim is the 'clearest ever' photo of a big catAfter spotting a black cat on visit to Cumbria around 20 years ago, Rick became fascinated with the subject.

He often confers with Sharon about potential sightings and invites her on to the show as a guest.

Rick said: "Sharon deserves huge credit - she is a dedicated investigator who networks with local people and farmers to gauge how these secretive cats use the landscape.

"We have ongoing reports of these large black cats, but getting hard evidence backs up the claims.

"We’ve had other witnesses from Cumbria on the podcast, including a fireman on holiday who had a close-up sighting in 1997.

"It was so close he could see the ‘shadow spot’ markings within the black pigment of the fur."

The Mail: Josh Widdecombe and Nish KumarThe latest evidence comes after a visit by Sky TV for Hold the Front Page with comedians Nish Kumar and Josh Widdicombe investigating big cat sightings in Cumbria.

Rick added: "It was exciting to help them out with their search for evidence and witness stories." 

"We’re just frustrated we couldn’t get a positive DNA sample when they visited in September.

"But they spurred us on so when Sharon saw the big cat later in the Autumn, I felt another test might be worth it.

"This is a good example of Citizen Science at work, led by Sharon for big cats in Cumbria, along with her Facebook page on the topic."

To find out more details and hear Sharon explaining the events around the DNA test, visit Rick's podcast Big Cat Conversations.