More people claiming to have seen the elusive Beast of Essex have come forward after an off-duty police officer spotted the animal.

On Wednesday the Gazette told how the officer called for back-up after he spotted a panther-like animal in the back garden of Wivenhoe police station.

He claimed the creature "growled" at him, before slinking down the side of the High Street building.

Since then the story has been picked up by national newspapers, and has sparked a flurry of reported sightings of the mysterious feline.

Gazette reader Paul Crane e-mailed us to say that he had seen a similar big cat in the same area twice before.

"I personally have seen this cat twice in the last three or so years," he said.

"I definitely know what I saw, as it was at least 6ft in length and stood about 4ft high.

"I was just entering Alresford, from Wivenhoe, at about midnight when the big cat ran out in front of my car, leaving me to swerve out the way and brake suddenly.

"As I looked back, the black cat ran into a farm field next to a property.

"About a year later, after telling people what I saw and them saying I must have been seeing things, I was driving down the same road around the same time and it ran out in front of me again.

"This time I had my girlfriend with me and she screamed from the shock of seeing such an animal in public."

David Smith, of Speedwell Road, Colchester, also believes he has seen a similar creature on the Middlewick Ranges, and said he is not the only one.

"I was walking my dog a couple of weeks before Christmas, and I saw what I thought was a domestic cat," he said.

"As I got closer it just got bigger and bigger and I realised it was bigger than a dog. It was lying down, with its paws out in front, like in the film Born Free.

"I changed the direction I was walking and dialled 999 immediately, as I was worried about it."

Mr Smith said another resident of the road has told him they also saw the cat at a different time, and a shop worker claims to have had his own separate sighting.

Another Gazette reader said: "The beast is true. I have seen things moving in the woods with my mates - when we went to see it, the beast ran in the bushes.

"We chased after it but the beast was too fast. It was 6ft long, black and had green eyes."

Big cat experts believe there could be a number of wild cats in the UK, ranging from lynx to panthers.

A number of people are said to have released such creatures into the wild following the introduction of the Dangerous and Wild Animals Act.