Scottish Wildcats: Powerful Hunters and Endangered Animals
The Scottish Wildcat
The Scottish wildcat is an impressive animal. It's a muscular and powerful hunter with excellent vision and hearing. The animal is solitary and has long been a symbol for the beautiful, wild, and untamed areas of Scotland. Unfortunately, it's critically endangered.
A Scottish wildcat looks somewhat like a domestic tabby cat. The wildcat is definitely not a domestic animal, however. It has neither the temperament nor the appearance of a pet. It's generally larger than a house cat and has a heavier build. Its dense coat is brown or greyish brown in colour and has black stripes. The animal also has a thick, bushy tail with distinct black rings and a black, blunt tip.
The wildcat hybridizes with both domestic and feral cats. This hybridization has become a serious problem for its survival. Some investigators think that only around thirty-five animals that are really Scottish wildcats still exist.
"The Scottish Highlands" is the term for a mountainous and sparsely populated area in northern Scotland. The area has a rich history. It also contains Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles at 4,409 feet (1,344 metres) above sea level. Wildcats live in the highlands.
The scientific name of the wildcat is Felis silvestris. Five subspecies are often said to exist—the European, African, Southern African, Asiatic, and Chinese Alpine Steppe wildcats. This classification system is controversial, though. There is considerable variation in wildcat appearance throughout its range. Some people think that the Scottish wildcat should be classified in its own subspecies instead of with the European animal.
The European wildcat is classified as Felis silvestris silvestris. (Felis is the genus, the first silvestris is the species, and the second silvestris is the subspecies.) The Scottish wildcat is sometimes classified as Felis silvestris grampia, distinguishing it from its European ancestor. The domestic cat, which is thought to have developed from the African wildcat, is classified as Felis catus or as Felis silvestris catus. Scientists who use the latter scientific name consider the domestic cat to be a subspecies of the wildcat.
The light purple colour in the map above represents places where Felis sylvester sylvestris once existed but is now extinct while the black patches show where it still survives. Some people feel that the subspecies in Scotland should be named Felis sylvestris grampia.
The Scottish wildcat is sometimes known as the Highland Tiger, a name that reflects both its habitat and its ferocity.
Physical Appearance and Anatomy
The Scottish wildcat is a fierce animal that is said to be untameable, even when it's born and brought up in captivity. It's also the largest and heaviest of all the wildcats. Males may reach as much as seventeen pounds in weight, although the average is a few pounds less. Females weigh less than males. There have been suggestions that these values are underestimates and are skewed by the existence of hybrids, however.
Scottish wildcats have thicker coats than the average domestic cat. The coat may be ruffled due to its thickness. In addition, wildcats are more muscular than their domestic relatives. They also have larger skulls, longer leg bones, and shorter intestines. Their face and jaws tend to look wider than those of domestic cats. Wildcats are distinctly striped animals. They have a thick and beautiful tail with black bands and a blunt tip instead of the narrower and pointed tail of tabby cats.
Some researchers say that many "wildcats" in captivity are actually hybrids. In fact, captive hybrids may be so common that our only choice may be to breed the least hybridized animals if we want to create a population that resembles a wildcat population.
Identifying a Wildcat
There has been much debate over what features make an animal a Scottish wildcat. Dr. Andrew Kitchener of National Museums Scotland studies the animal and its characteristics. He has examined the coats of wildcats collected in the past and stored in a museum, as shown in the video above. He's created a list of seven coat features that he believes identifies an animal as a Scottish wildcat. He says that the animal has:
- four broad and black strips on the neck
- two distinct black stripes in the middle of the shoulder
- black and unbroken stripes on the flanks
- a dorsal stripe along the back that stops at the base of the tail
- stripes on the rump that may be broken but do not change into spots
- distinct and parallel black bands on the tail
- a black and blunt tip to the tail
A Genetic Test and Behavioural Characteristics
A relatively new genetic test may help researchers to identify a true wildcat and the degree of hybridization if it's present. The test examines key areas of a feline's DNA in order to categorize the animal. It was created by Dr Helen Senn from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.
Blood or hair from an animal is required in order to run the test. Though hair is a protein, cells are often removed when a hair is lost. Researchers have created an interesting way to get a hair sample from a wildcat without subjecting it to stress. They place a wooden stake coated with catnip or another attractive chemical in the ground. When the animal rubs against it, he or she sometimes deposits hair on the stake.
Researchers are also studying the behaviour of wildcats and have tracked some animals by means of GPS (Global Positioning System) collars. They want to catalogue differences between the behaviour of wildcats and that of feral and domestic animals. The researchers say that these differences exist.
Daily Life of the Animal
Scottish wildcats are usually nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dawn or dusk), although they may be seen during the day. They live in a wide variety of habitats, including forested areas, scrubland, and moors. They are sometimes seen on pastureland, too. Their original habitat is believed to have been the forest.
A male's territory may overlap the territory of one or more females. The animals mark their territories with urine, feces, and secretions from scent glands. Wildcats aren't very vocal, but they do make sounds during aggression and mating. They can purr but they apparently can't meow.
The animals spend most of the day hidden in dense trees or bushes or in a den. At dusk, or sometimes during the day, they emerge to feed. Wildcats usually hunt with stealth but are capable of great bursts of speed. They are carnivorous and feed chiefly on rodents and other mammals. Their diet includes rabbits, hares, mice, and voles. They also catch birds, frogs, lizards, and fish. They dip their paws into water to scoop out the fish. They use their sharp, retractable claws to trap their prey, which is killed with a bite to the neck.
The animals eat nearly every part of their catch, including the fur, feathers, and bones. The prey is eaten immediately or buried for future use.
Scottish wildcats are fierce predators and will protect themselves and their kittens if they feel threatened. The cats were said to be man killers until this claim was disproved in the 1950s.
Scottish wildcats mate in February or March. After a gestation period of around sixty-five days, the female produces two to four kittens (on average) in a den. The den is either freshly made or is inherited from another animal.
The male seems to play no role in rearing the youngsters. When the kittens are ready to eat solid food, their mother brings them live prey. The kittens leave home and look for their own territories at between five and six months of age. In the wild, wildcats live for about six to eight years. In captivity they live for about fifteen years.
Wildcats in Trouble
The IUCN (International Union for Conservation for Nature) classifies the wildcat population in its “Least Concern” category for conservation purposes. However, it says that if only non-hybrid animals were considered in the population count the results might be very different. The exact number of Scottish wildcats that still exist (as opposed to other types of wildcats and hybrids) is unknown. Estimates range from as many as a few hundred to as few as thirty-five. Most researchers seem to think that a number in the lower end of this range is most accurate.
Another problem with assessing the status of the population is that sometimes feral domestic cats are mistakenly identified as wildcats. This may produce inflated population numbers for the wild animal.
Reasons for the Population Decline
Human persecution has played a large role in the decrease in the wildcat population. In the past, Scottish wildcats were often considered to be pests by gamekeepers and farmers and were killed. Persecution, habitat destruction, and being hunted for their fur resulted in the elimination of the animals from England and Wales in the 1800s. Habitat loss is also a problem in Scotland today.
Scottish wildcats are now protected animals. Hybridization has become a big problem, however. The mating of wildcats with domestic ones isn't a new process and has been taking place for a long time, but as the domestic cat population has increased so has the cross breeding. The hybrids are fertile and can produce a new generation of cats. Diseases transferred from domestic cats have also played a role in reducing wildcat numbers. In addition, sometimes the animals reach roads and are killed by vehicles.
Why Does Hybridization Matter?
Some people wonder why we need to worry about whether a cat seen in the wild areas of Scotland is a wildcat, a hybrid, or a feral domestic cat. The Scottish wildcat is a protected animal, so it's beneficial for an animal to be classified as one. In addition, wildcats are genetically different from domestic ones.
At the moment, the gene pool of the wild animal is being diluted. The animal's distinct genes are disappearing from the population and being replaced by domestic cat genes as hybridization occurs in generation after generation. We are losing diversity from the Earth. From a selfish point of view, this might hurt humans. Studying the genes or gene variants of other animals can sometimes improve our knowledge of human biology and our health problems. Losing genes from the earth might prevent or hinder these discoveries.
Hybridization doesn’t sound as dramatic as a species disappearing due to overhunting or habitat loss (although suitable habitat for the Scottish wildcat is disappearing), but the end result as far as the species or subspecies is concerned is the same—extinction.
Hybridization is not the Scottish wildcat's only problem today. Even in the Scottish Highlands, suitable habitat for the cats is shrinking due to deforestation. The animals are in danger of disappearing from their last stronghold in Britain.
Conservation efforts for wildcats include a captive breeding program involving (hopefully) non-hybrid animals, captive breeding-for-release programs, and education programs to encourage cat owners to neuter and vaccinate their pets. In addition, feral cats are being trapped, neutered, and released.
Conservation organizations are trying to publicize the plight of the wildcat. The general public is being encouraged to help with animal surveys, take photographs, and make notes about any cats that they see in the wild. Wildcats are elusive animals, so all encounters are important for collecting information. Farmers are being asked to control predation on their animals in a way that doesn't hurt wildcats.
Edinburgh Zoo has organized a project to collect and analyze genetic information about Scottish wildcats, which might be helpful in saving the animals. One researcher has even suggested that the animals should be cloned.
Management Plan Disagreements
There have been major disagreements between different conservation organizations with respect to a wildcat management plan. Some people feel that neutering domestic and feral animals in wildcat habitat is a better conservation plan than breeding the animals in zoos and then releasing them.
According to National Geographic, a breed and release project in the 1980s found that captivity blunted an important survival skill in European wildcats. 129 captive animals were released into three German forests. Only twenty to thirty percent survived. The rest were killed by vehicles within a few weeks after being released.
Orphaned Kittens Rescued
Since so few animals exist, every bit of news about the Scottish wildcat could be significant. In July 2018, two orphaned kittens were found in the wild. After ensuring that the kittens really were orphaned, the Wildcat Haven organization rescued them and is caring for them until they are ready to be released. The scientific advisor of the organization says that the markings on the kittens are "amazing" and that the kittens look far more like a Scottish wildcat than any animal currently in a zoo. One animal is a male and the other a female. They are shown in the video below.
Is it Too Late to Save the Cat in the Wild?
In December, 2018, researchers from the Edinburgh Zoo announced that according to their research the Scottish wildcat is "functionally extinct". This term means that although wild felines exist, their genes indicate that they are hybrids, not wildcats. In fact, based on the animals that they studied, the researchers say that hybridization has occurred so often that so-called "wildcats" now belong to the same gene pool as domestic animals.
The researchers examined the DNA of almost 300 animals that had been identified as wildcats. They say that even if some true wildcats exist, there are probably so few of them alive that they are unlikely to find a non-hybrid mate. The only sign of hope is that some of the animals in captivity are more genetically distinct from the domestic cat than the wild animals that the researchers studied.
In July, 2019, the plan to release captive European wildcats into the Scottish Highlands was announced. The European subspecies is believed to be the most closely related to the Scottish one. Experts say that this is a last-ditch effort to save the local wildcat as a distinct animal. Before the introduced animals are released, a major campaign to reduce the number of fertile feral and pet domestic cats will take place in order to prevent cross breeding.
The experts seem to disagree about the number of wildcats that still exist in the Scottish Highlands. All of them seem to agree that even if any non-hybrid animals remain, the situation is serious.
A Sanctuary for the Animals
In 2014, a Scottish wildcat sanctuary was established on the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. This peninsula has a low human population. Domestic cats in the area were neutered to prevent interbreeding. The location has an area of 250 square miles and sounds like a good place to protect wildcats.
In February 2015, it was announced that the size of the sanctuary was to be doubled. Its area has now been further increased. The sanctuary currently occupies almost a thousand square miles and is located in Arnamurchan and the neighbouring areas of Moidart, Sunart, and Morvern. A sanctuary sounds like a great idea, as long as the animals there are actually wildcats or as close to them as we can get genetically.
Hopefully all of the efforts being made to ensure the survival of the Scottish wildcat will be successful. It would be a great shame to lose this beautiful and interesting animal from the Earth.
- Scottish wildcat information from National Museums Scotland
- Information about the wildcats from the International Society for Endangered Cats
- How to identify an animal from Scottish Wildcat Action
- Sanctuary description from Wildcat Haven
- Orphaned kittens rescued from the BBC
- Saving the Scottish wildcat from National Geographic
- Scottish wildcats functionally extinct from the BBC
- On the verge of extinction from The Guardian
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Linda Crampton