The report of a lion loose in rural Essex on Sunday evening kick-started a £25,000 police operation and had social media abuzz with fake pictures and false sightings.

The small village of St Osyth, near the seaside town of Clacton-on-Sea, was the focus of the nation’s attention yesterday after holidaymakers and residents were convinced they had spotted a big cat on the loose.

Holidaymaker Sue Wright told The Daily Mail “The moment I saw it, straight away I said ‘That looks like a lioness…When the farmer came he walked into the field and the lion got up and walked away into the next field.”

Rich Baker, a van driver from Essex told The Mail “It was one million per cent a lion. It was a tan colour with a big mane, it was fully grown, it was definitely a lion. It was just standing there; it seemed to be enjoying itself.”

%TNT Magazine% essex lion1
Hilarious spoof photos like this one were circulated on Twitter and Facebook 

However, the hunt was called off last night after a search involving more than 30 police officers – as well as two helicopters and a specialist marksmen ready to take aim and fire if the ‘lion’ decided to snack on Essex sun seekers.

The Mirror claim to have found the real life suspect – a 12 year old ginger tomcat called Tom, who lives at a local care home 200 metres from the sighting in the St Osyth field.

“He’s always out in the fields hunting for mice, rats and even hares. His colouring means he does look a bit like a lion, but he’s not dangerous.” a carer working at the home told The Mirror.

“He’s quite a large, mean-looking tom, but beneath all that he’s an affectionate cat who just likes the odd stroke.”

An Essex police spokesman said “We believe what was seen on Sunday evening was either a large domestic cat or a wildcat. Extensive searches have been carried out, areas examined and witnesses spoken to, yet nothing has been found to suggest that a lion was in the area.”