HARCOURT’S big cat mystery gained pace at the weekend as dry weather and freeway construction were believed to have flushed the elusive feline out of hiding.
An eyewitnesses siting on Sunday and unexplained paw prints discovered beside a farm dam have added credence to the belief a large wild cat may be stalking the area.
Coliban Water bailiff Dennis Clapham spotted the large animal while on his way to turn on channel water for Harcourt Valley Vineyards shortly before 7 am on Sunday.
‘‘I was driving up Milford Road when I saw this big black cat as it was just emerging from the long grass,’’ Mr Clapham said.
‘‘I saw it and it saw me, then it took off like a scalded cat.’’
Mr Clapham said from a distance of less than 100 metres he estimated the animal to be about 60 cm high and with a body length of up to a metre that moved with a distinctly feline quality.
‘‘I was a bit sceptical to start with, but the more you listen to people around here, and hear anecdotally of mauled sheep or kangaroos chomped in half and dragged halfway up trees, it makes you wonder what the hell it is.’’
He added: ‘‘If feral cats can get that big, then I’m scared.’’
Harcourt Valley Vineyards owner Kye Livingstone said his brother had first sighted the paw prints at the dam’s edge on the weekend, but had suspected them of being a neighbour’s dog.
But, he said his neighbour’s dogs tended to wander off together and the single set of prints, each measuring eight centimetres across, indicated something much larger.
‘‘I didn’t believe it to begin with, but whatever it is, this is something a fair bit bigger than my pup,’’ he said.
Mr Livingstone said the paw prints added to many local stories, and he would like to see a register made of the collected evidence of something living in the area.
‘‘At this time of year when we are irrigating, the water goes down quickly leaving the mud exposed,’’ he said.
‘‘It would take quite a bit of weight to push down into that mud.’’ Mr Livingstone said roadworks in the valley appeared to be bringing the animal further out of the bush.
He said the Calder Freeway route had eliminated some of the small farms and dams at the rear of this property, and could mean the animal was coming further out in search of water.
‘‘The thing is there is probably plenty of food about with roos and rabbits, but it is water which is the problem.’’ One Harcourt resident who moved as the freeway came through, Michael Warrend said he suspected his dog encountered the cat on his former property, which adjoined the bush of the Castlemaine Diggings National Park.
‘‘My small blue heeler cross will get a hold of a snake and go after anything, but one day he chased something down the water race,’’ he said.
‘‘But he came bolting back and went and sat in his kennels for two days.’’ Mr Warren believes the animal could be the descendant of a released wildcat, or the product of 20 to 30 generations of interbreeding and adaptation of feral cats, capable of producing an animal of this size.
‘‘Whatever it is, it is big,’’ he said.