This could be the first proof of the existence of the 'Beast of Burford', the big cat for which a local wildlife park is willing to pay £5,000.

A picture taken in a field near Brize Norton during harvest time

Following fresh sightings of the animal in west Oxfordshire last week, the Cotswold Wildlife Park confirmed none of its animals were missing and announced the reward for its capture.

This picture was taken by Phil Buck, of Brize Norton Road, Carterton, a regular at the Masons Arms pub in Brize Norton, where it now hangs on the wall.

Landlord Dave Fleming said: "I saw it in a field near the pub. It was about the same size as a Labrador and at first I thought it was a dog. It wasn't until it moved and I saw its ears and tail, I realised it was a cat.

"The picture was taken during the harvest and the piles of hay in the field were about 2ft high."

Mr Buck, who waited with a camera after waking early one morning, said: "It was a lot bigger than a domestic cat and the way it moved looked a lot more powerful."

Reports of big black cats in west Oxfordshire have been common for about 15 years. There have been several sightings in countryside around Chipping Norton -- including the discovery by gamekeepers of the body of a deer with fang marks on its neck and flesh stripped off its legs -- and in Cornwell, Chastleton, Clanfield, Finstock, Crawley and North Leigh.

Nick August, who farms to the south of Burford, has recently seen the animal.

He said: "It was at the beginning of February. I was coming from Westwell on to the A40 at about 2.30pm and it was trotting down the road in front of me. "At first I presumed it was a dog, but when I saw it side on it looked like a very big cat, completely black and with a large tail. My mother has also seen it near the farm about 10 days ago."

Colin Dawes, who runs the Foxbury Farm Shop, in Brize Norton, has seen the animal and believes it recently killed three of his sheep. He said: "We saw it probably about two months ago, and then it disappeared for a while, but now it seems to be back. It's taking big sheep so it must be a powerful animal."

Cotswold Wildlife Park said its big cats, which include lions and leopards, are all accounted for. It is taking the reports seriously because the recent death of an Indian Antelope at the park, described as "an unusual killing", has left staff baffled.

Director Reggie Heyworth said: "If anybody can capture this large cat and it's the real McCoy, not a large feral dog or a large domestic cat like a mancoon, and they can do it by Easter, we'll give them £5,000. We've got a cage waiting for it."

Danny Bamping, from the British Big Cat Society, said he was concerned the reward would lead to people hunting for the animal with guns, and suggested the park should offer a reward for clear video evidence of its existence instead.

He said: "I think it's likely there's a couple of panthers in Britain, but the biggest mystery is what the black cats are. Over 60 per cent of the sightings in Britain are of black cats, but they can't all be panthers.

"My view is they're either very large domestic animals, or there's the possibility of a hybrid. A lot of cat species can interbreed, like lions and tigers, which produces either a liger or a tigron."