The Scottish wildcat is a subspecies of the European wildcat and is unique to Britain. One of the largest of the various wildcat species an average size today is around 50% larger than a domestic cat, though one fossil specimen discovered was 4 feet from nose to tail and sightings persist of much bigger cats that successfully take on large breed dogs in the most remote regions.
Originally a forest dweller the Scottish wildcat has adapted to hunt over a variety of habitats and will include a range of them in their territory, this is relatively unusual behaviour in cats that tend to specialise in a particular habitat type. Ranges vary in size from 1-2km square in the East Highlands where there is much more prey, up to as much as 20km square in the West Highlands where prey is rarer, a huge territory for a small cat. Predating mainly on rabbits or rodents and small mammals, they are somewhat opportunist especially when food is scarce in winter and will hunt most things smaller than they are including insects, reptiles, fish and birds.
Estimates made in 2004 suggested a worst case scenario of 400 individuals surviving in Scotland, latest figures from the Scottish Wildcat Association in 2012 suggest a best case scenario of 100-200 individuals; the Scottish wildcat is headed for extinction without immediate help.
Freddie; born a captive and released in the Cairngorms (still from the film), Steve Piper
They are pure carnivores and eat only meat, consuming almost every part of any kill they make; the coat providing roughage, the bones calcium and the meat everything else, in fact they rarely need to drink because meat has such a high water content. Wildcats often carry parasitic worms in their gut and will eat long blades of grass to help clear out their system and probably also to obtain certain necessary acids not present in meat, a habit that their descendants, our pet cats, also have.
They live a solitary existence, coming together in pairs to mate for a short period around February. 2 or 3 Kittens are born in spring and raised solely by the mother who is exceptional in her defence of them as they grow, taking on just about anything if she feels they are threatened; one famous Highland tale tells of one bringing down a golden eagle attempting to steal her kittens.
Unlike most wild animals they cannot be tamed, even a hand reared kitten will naturally develop a complete distrust for human kind; this is in no way related to poor animal husbandry, numerous people have tried and failed with only hybrid crossbreeds between wildcat and domestic cat successfully gaining trust, usually for just a single human. Whilst unusual, it is far from surprising after thousands of years of persecution, only the most human fearful survived and have passed on that fear to their offspring over multiple generations.
Pound for pound the Scottish wildcat is beyond any doubt one of the most impressive predators in the world. Intelligent, fearless, resourceful, agile, aggressive and incredibly powerful they have been known to predate on considerably larger species such as sheep or deer and until as recently as the 1950's were believed to be man killers.
Equipped as most cats are with excellent day and night motion-sensitive vision, a highly tuned sense of balance and touch, good scenting ability and incredible hearing, they also have a very thick, well groomed and heavily striped coat to camoflage them in various terrain and protect them against the fierce Scottish weather, they are the most northerly of the wildcats and, besides a few mountain specialists, survive some of the harshest conditions any cat lives in. Naturally, living in Scotland, they're not too bothered about rain or getting wet either!
Freddie again in the Cairngorms (still from the film), Steve Piper
History and evolution
Wildcats have lived in Britain for at least 2 million years and probably far longer, outlasting mammoth, cave lion, bear, lynx and wolf. They were briefly driven out by the advancing glaciation of various ice ages, but repeatedly repopulated, being joined by stone age humans around 9000 years ago via a land bridge to France. As the glacial ice sheets melted, sea levels rose, the land bridge was submerged and the isolated British wildcats began to evolve into what is now known as the Scottish wildcat.
As civilisation developed, hunting became popular, agriculture swallowed up Britain's forests and the cats began to decline, however it was the Victorian era that truly brought them to the brink of extinction. The establishment of shooting estates saw the wildcat propagandised into being a severe pest on game birds and persecution was rife. In fact, studies suggest game birds form a very small part of their diet which is almost exclusively rabbit; an alien and highly destructive species.
The First World War saved the cats, gamekeepers were called up, many were never to return and a changed economy led to many shooting estates breaking up. The cats appeared to repopulate Scotland but not all was as it seemed. Naturalist and author Mike Tomkies wrote in the 70's that he believed the wildcat was mating extensively with domestic cats hybridising the gene pool. Conventional wisdom at the time stated that wildcat/domestic offspring were always sterile, a complete falsehood based on studies of less closely related cats such as tigers and lions; Tomkies was largely ignored.
In the 80's the wildcat was fully protected under law and government figures stated that there were around 5000 across Scotland, but by this time a group of scientists was starting to pick up on the same feelings as Mike Tomkies. Years of research followed until, by the turn of the millennium, it was accepted that Scottish wildcats were breeding into extinction with domestic cats, and that the likely figure of true wildcats left in Scotland was closer to 400.
In recent years consensus has been reached and Scottish Natural Heritage have accepted the scientist's figures and appraisal of the situation, naming the wildcat as a priority species for conservation in Scotland, with a poorly funded survey launched to learn more about the population in 2008, unsurprisingly the results were inconclusive and another survey, equally poorly funded, was launched in 2010 which is ongoing. General opinion amongst scientists suggests that there are far fewer than 400 wildcats remaining now in 2012.
In 2004 scientists warned extinction could be a decade away and that deadline looks likely to be accurate or already passed. One legacy of the film was the establishment of the Scottish Wildcat Association which has pulled together a conservation action plan named Wildcat Haven; backed by every leading expert it is currently building funding and running field trials in the West Highlands of Scotland. Researchers at Chester University working with the SWA have also accomplished creation of a genetic test to identify hybridisation in wildcats, allowing expansion of the captive breeding program and the opportunity to identify the best surviving wildcats and to neuter any domestic ferals or hybridised wildcats living within breeding range of them.
The next few years will be key in deciding whether the Scottish wildcat will survive; all wildcat species are endangered for very similar reasons across Europe, Asia and Africa, however none are as close to extinction as the Scottish form, it is Britain's rarest mammal and one of the rarest cats in the world.
Aelach; part of the captive breeding program, Allan Paul
How you can help
The wildcat faces a variety of threats, and cannot survive by the work of scientists, naturalists or Scottish Natural Heritage alone, it requires a huge volume of support not only by the Scottish public, but also the wider British public and anyone interested in the wildlife of these islands.
Responsible domestic cat ownership
Wildcats will freely interbreed with domestic cats destroying the genepool. Whilst this is a large scale problem it would in fact be easily solved if more cat owners acted responsibly. Domestic cats should be innoculated against diseases, neutered to prevent the breeding of unwanted kittens, and ideally kept in at night which is their preferred time to hunt, fight, mate and get run over by cars. Charities such as Cats Protection, SSPCA and RSPCA all advocate neutering and can often help families on benefits or a low income with veterinary costs. Besides helping conserve wildcats and many other species, your own cat's good health and life expectancy is drastically improved by these measures.
Opposing habitat loss
Habitat loss threatens the Highland way of life itself as well as most of the wildlife of the area. Parts of the Highlands are developing at a terrifying pace and droves of English Monarch of the Glen fans are financing the building of vast and ugly modern estate housing for the sake of a two week summer stay every year. Tourism is vital to the Highland economy, but the current dash to make money with thoughtless development will eventually destroy the very thing that makes the Highlands so special. All Scots should oppose thoughtless development as there is always a better option that the government simply deems too difficult or expensive to consider. Residents of, and visitors to, the Highlands should support small independent local businesses; supermarkets, chain hotels, their car parks and supply demands will always place profit above the environment and pressure local planning officials accordingly. No one immigrating to the Highlands should ever consider living in a "flat packed" breeze block house, if you love the place enough to want to live there, love it enough not to bulldoze acres of it to do so and support schemes for replanting forests and protecting wild land (such as the Trees For Life or the John Muir Trust). Roads are also a big associated problem, dividing habitats unnaturally they are a huge killer of all wildlife and drivers should take their time and be especially aware on forest lined roads when animals can literally spring from nowhere.
It's tough to enforce any countryside law, simply because there are rarely any witnesses. Persecution against wildcats is fortunately slowing down but still accounts for many deaths. Scots and visitors to Scotland can help speed things up by reporting wildlife crime and supporting anti hunting charities; if game birds are no longer hunted, there will be few reasons to persecute wildcats. If you are a supporter of hunting, then support the notion to gaming estates that losses to wildcats are small and that sighting one in fact adds value to your experience. The general public should also expect SNH to find ways of improving protection through education, subsidies or further legal measures, not by building golf courses on top of SSSIs.
Supporting the Scottish Wildcat Association
The SWA is the only charity dedicated to the Scottish wildcat, almost entirely volunteer run even the smallest donations make a direct difference to wildcats from those in the wild to those in the captive breeding program. Widely supported in their work by leading conservationists and researchers worldwide they are nevertheless chronically underfunded in carrying out very expensive work. Lots of information and beautiful photography can be seen at www.scottishwildcats.co.uk.
Skye; part of the captive breeding program, Allan Paul
Seeing a Scottish wildcat
There are few things in life as hard as seeing a true Scottish wildcat, things like leopards are a walk in the park in comparison. The only guranteed way is to visit captives at centres such as the Highland Wildlife Park, Port Lympne or the British Wildlife Centre; all of which support the captive breeding campaign.
We would encourage anyone to experience the hills proper, but do so responsibly; people die every year in Scotland through overconfidence or poor preparation, and too much wildlife is disturbed or directly harmed (such as ground nesting birds) by well meaning but inexperienced wildlife watchers. There are many guides, tours and permanent hides set up all around the Highlands to enjoy wildlife responsibly from.
If you know your fieldcraft the best opportunity is, surprisingly, often by the sides of quiet Highland roads; wildcats use roads as territorial boundaries and walk them regularly to lay a scent trail of scat marking their patch; find a trail of scat and you've found a cat that will return regularly. Next you spend anything up to several weeks sitting silently in the most well hidden hide you can create and hope for the best, bearing in mind they'll probably see, hear or smell you anyway and avoid the area as long as you're around! Most sightings of wildcats are lucky ones.
Local knowledge is an essential tool for wildlife filmmakers and your best bet is always to speak to local farmers, wildlife watchers or gamekeepers; if there is anything resembling a wildcat in the area, they will have some idea of where you may see it.
So please, safety first all round and remember; never try to approach a wildcat or, even worse, their kittens; their mother will attack you, they're not man killers but they can deglove both your hands in the space of about 5 seconds. Never remove "abandoned" kittens; watch them instead, their mother is probably off hunting and will come back to them. Never try to get close to wildlife without a professional guide or considerable knowledge of the creature and it's behaviour, thoughtless intrusion and disturbance can be disastrous for endangered species and even docile seeming animals like deer will attack and kill people under certain circumstances. Never venture even into the relatively tame looking Scottish mountains without the right equipment, it may be blazing sunshine in Aviemore but it can still be below freezing in the mountain range sitting next to the town and it's easy to get disoriented in the often constant cloud and fog.
Nancy; just 8 weeks old and already pure wildcat, Allan Paul
Scottish wildcats on the web
There are sadly very few sites specifically on the Scottish wildcat and it's true that most people outside of the Highlands don't even believe they exist, however we hope the following sites will provide a starting point for anyone wanting to learn more.
General Scottish wildcat information
Scottish Wildcat Association; the home of the new charity set up to help conserve the Scottish wildcat.
Scottish Wildcat Association Facebook
Genetic Diversity and Introgression in the Scottish wildcat; complete paper in a PDF document
Carnivore Ecology Portal, with summaries of lots of papers written on wildcats, go to "search" under "papers" and type "wildcat" in the Abstract field.
"They're shy, they're clever, they move silently... and they would fight to the death for their freedom, they epitomise what it takes to be truly free I think"
speaking in the film.
"This is a special creature to the British Isles, it's a special creature to Scotland; it's a special creature in the context of natural history amongst the most wonderful parts of the British Isles. If there's any bit of wilderness left, anything which can make the heart sing in terms of people's enjoyment of nature and wildness it's surely the Scottish Highlands, and what creature more specifically, more precisely and more beautifully emblemises the Scottish Highlands than the Scottish wildcat?"
Prof. David MacDonald
speaking in the film.
"It is still an important part of what Scotland is... independence, freedom; they're all mixed up in the wildcat ideal"
speaking in the film.
"We don't own the land, the wildcat owns the land as much as we do, the eagle owns it's land it was here before we were, wildcat remains were found in Pleistocene deposits over 2 million years old, it co-existed with the mammoth, the cave lion, bear, wolf and lynx; they're all extinct now but the wildcat is still clinging on"
speaking in the film.