West Country horse owners are being extra vigilant after a startling increase in reports of suspected big black cat attacks in the Shebbear area of North Devon.

Just last month, vets had to work for three hours to save the life of Jessica, a two-year-old Arab filly belonging to Di Curtis who found her with two very deep wounds the size of fists on either side of her neck.

“The wounds were so close to her jugular that she was a gnat’s whisker from death,” says Di Curtis.

She is now thankfully making a good recovery but the scars from the wound, which needed 40 stitches, remain.

It’s hard to believe a large cat could have done this, but there is no other answer,” says Di, who now makes sure all her horses are in before it is dark. Two of her other horses were also injured but not as seriously.

“Normally they would have all been in but it was a windy night and they were frightened by fireworks being let off just as we got to the gate and all ran off round the field. I thought they might be better out than in as they were so spooked,” she added.

“My dogs also acted strangely soon after the attack, bolting into a nearby cover after picking up a scent. I thought it might be a fox but they normally do not bother about those.”

A week earlier and five miles down the road, 18-year-old Ivy belonging to Sandra Boycott was saved from more serious injury by her rug. She needed 12 stitches after being attacked in the middle of the afternoon.

“She was grazing about 10-15ft away from the hedge when she suddenly bolted up the field”, says Sandra Boycott. “When we went to investigate we found a huge gauge in her neck and what looked like paw marks around the wound just above her rug. She also had scratches up her leg.”

With safety in mind 16.2hh Ivy, who is ridden side-saddle, both hunting locally and in displays, now also wears a neck cover.

“Initially I thought one of the other horses may have bitten her but my daughter lives in Kenya and I have seen injuries made by lions. Also there is no barbed wire in the field. It has all been very upsetting.

“I now carry a starting pistol to frighten it off in case it comes back and am urging people to ridein twos. More and more people are coming forward and saying they have seen big cats in the area. We can’t all be wrong.”