The elusive wildcat is one of the most elusive and enigmatic of our carnivores. It is certainly amongst our rarest, having been persecuted in Britain since the Middle Ages and suffered a steady decrease in its range. The population probably reached its lowest level around 1914, when it was believed to be confined to the north and west of Scotland, where keepering pressure is traditionally less intense than elsewhere. A reduction in persecution following the First World War allowed the species to recolonise former parts of its range.
Estimates of wildcat numbers in Scotland have varied between 1,000 and 4,000, but there may be fewer than 400 cats with classical wildcat pelage surviving. They are a European Protected Species and therefore fully protected.
In general, the Scottish wildcat prefers to live in the margins of mountains and moorlands with rough grazing, often combined with forests and some crops. Animals in the east of Scotland prefer marginal agricultural areas with moorlands, pastureland and woodlands, whereas animals in the west favour rough grazing and moorland with limited pastures. They avoid high mountain areas, exposed coasts and fertile lowlands with intensive agriculture. Like most cat species, they are essentially solitary except when breeding. They are active both by day and by night and their diet varies markedly across the country, with rabbits making up the majority of prey in the east, while voles and mice predominate in the diet of western cats.
Wild-living cats in Scotland are a varied set of individuals containing a mixture of domestic and wildcat genes and physical characteristics. Many of these cats look different from domestic cats but have probably been influenced by hybridisation in the past. The available evidence suggests that these wild-living cats form two groups which are genetically and morphologically different, but share many of the same ecological and behavioural characters. Hence interbreeding is possible and not infrequent. Indeed, as the wildcat population was recovering from its historic low point in the early 20th century, the scarcity of female wildcats may have resulted in a rapid rise in hybridisation, as dispersing males encountered female domestic cats. A diagnostic test of a true wildcat containing no domestic genes is not possible, but it is possible that no such cats exist.
While it is not possible to say, with certainty that a cat with the classic wildcat markings is genetically ‘pure’, cats with these markings can be placed in the non-domestic group and should be treated as such by those involved in wildlife management. In other words, wild-living cats that look like wildcats based on their pelage markings should be regarded as being legally protected. Feral cats that clearly do not possess these markings may therefore be legitimately controlled. See the identification key on the Highland Tiger website. In brief, wildcats are striped tabby cats with a thick blunt tipped tail with clear black bands and no dorsal stripe.
The threats to Scottish wildcat have been identified as:
- Hybridisation with feral cats.
- Predator control and incidental capture.
- Habitat fragmentation and degradation.