The Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris) is truly a creature of myth and legend, perhaps more so than any other species found in Britain today. Old country lore about them being powerful enough to kill a man may be an exaggeration, but that is not to say that wildcats are undeserving of their appellation: the Highland tiger. Indeed, writing in the first volume of his British Zoology, published in 1776, Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant wrote of the wildcat:
“This animal may be called the British tiger; it is the fiercest, and most destructive beast we have, making dreadful havock among our poultry, lambs, and kids.”
Similarly, in 1920, Archibald Thornton described the wildcat as:
“Fierce and bloodthirsty in disposition and possessed of great strength and activity, this typical beast of prey is perfectly adapted by nature for a life of rapine.”
while, in his 1959 Wild Animals and their Ways, David Stephen recounted the story of a shepherd in Perthshire who, upon kneeling down to peer into a hole, was apparently hit in the face by “a spitting bundle of barbed-wire”.
The wildcat was first described in 1778 by German naturalist Johann von Schreber, based on early natural history texts and more recent authors have proposed several subspecies. Analysis of the skin and skull of a male wildcat killed in Invermoriston, in the Scottish Highlands, caused American biologist Gerrit Smith Miller to propose the Scottish wildcat a distinct species, Felis grampia, in 1907. In his 1912 Catalogue of the Mammals of Western Europe in the collection of the British Museum, however, Miller revised his opinion, instead considering it a subspecies of the European wildcat. Miller’s subspecies, Felis silvestris grampia, which translates quite appropriately as “cat of the Grampian woods”, is still widely adopted today, despite a lack of convincing morphometric or genetic data.
Mitochondrial DNA analysis suggests that the European wildcat is most closely related to the African wildcat (Felis lybica), the feline we currently think was the ancestor of modern domestic cats. Despite not being particularly closely related to modern domestic cats, the two species can hybridize to the detriment of purebred wildcat populations across Europe.
Their highly secretive nature and the difficulty in separating pure animals from hybrids means it’s hard to know how many wildcats remain in Britain. There are currently two methods of assessing purity in wildcats: a pelage scoring system, based on seven key traits, and the “Q-test” system based on nucleotide markers. In many cases the two may not align, so animals may have a high pelage score, but a low Q score. At the time of writing, I'm not aware of any specimens, from captivity or the wild, that have produced a Q score of 100%, suggesting there are very few (if any) purebred wildcats left in Britain. In 2018, The Mammal Society estimated the population at between 30 and 430, but probably around 200 animals. Density estimates range from 0.03 and 0.99 per sq-km.
That which follows is a summary of Scottish (European) wildcat natural history.
Scottish wildcat at a glance
Size: Considerable variation with habitat; 48-98cm (1.5-3.2 ft.) head and body length with 21-39cm (8-15 in.) tail. Maximum head-body for male/female in Scotland 63cm (2 ft.)/54cm (1.8 ft.); average 56cm/51cm. Stand 35-40cm (~1.2 ft.) at shoulder and weigh 1.6-8kg (3.5-17.5 lbs.), average in Scotland for male/female 5.2kg (11.5 lbs.)/4.5kg (10 lbs.).
Colour/Appearance: Very difficult to distinguish from domestic tabby cats. Typically wildcats are slightly larger and stockier, especially in the face. Coat patterning most diagnostic. Wildcats have striped (no back/flank blotches) coat with thick, rounded, black-tipped tail sporting 3-5 clear, broad brown-black rings. A black dorsal stripe runs along the top of the back, stopping at the base of the tail – in hybrids and domestic cats, this line commonly proceeds along some/all of tail. Four thick stripes present on back of neck and two thick stripes on shoulder. Overall, wildcats have fewer, broader stripes cf. domestic tabbies or hybrids. Underside paler with large distinct spots and ochre/orange patch over groin. Long, mostly white whiskers in top lip; smaller vibrissae above eyes and on chin.
At least one melanistic pure wildcat described, with several other convincing sighting although likely to be hybrids (“Kellas cats”); may account for ~16% hybrid population.
Distribution: In UK, distribution entirely limited to mainland northern and central Scotland, largely in the east (i.e. Moray, Aberdeenshire, Angus and Perth & Kinross) – none south of line drawn between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Patchily distributed in east and north Highlands and in Morvern, Ardnamurchan and Kintyre in west. Annecdotal reports from some islands and tourist photographed a cat near the Glengorm Estate in the north of Mull, Inner Hebrides, in 2010; but these are widely suspected to be hybrids. Distribution may be significantly less than currently recognised owing to difficulty separating pure wildcats from hybrids. Fragmented distribution in Europe, although well distributed in Spain, eastern France, southern Italy and south-east Europe (i.e. Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia).
Habitat: Typically a species of coniferous woodland (64% of sightings), with deciduous woodland apparently less important in UK (13% sightings), much more so on continent. Ventures into unimproved grassland to hunt (23% sightings). Seems to favour border of forest and moor/grassland, providing hunting with cover close by. Utilises high moorland during summer, descending to lowland forest during winter, particularly in heavy snowfall.
Longevity: Few verified records from wild, but max. appears ~11 yrs. Record of captive male at Tierpark in Germany that died just short of 18 yrs.
Sexing: Males typically larger cf. females (e.g. max. head-body 65cm vs. 60cm), with broader head. Males are “toms”, females “queens”.
Activity: Highly variable, possibly associated with persecution. Several studies in France suggest primarily crepuscular and nocturnal, but in Ardnamurchan (west Scotland) cats active throughout day and night. Diurnal activity may be common during winter in periods of heavy snowfall where hunting efficiency reduced. One estimate suggests need to hunt for 7-9hrs per day to find sufficient food.
Territory/Home Range: Males largely nomadic, with ranges overlapping several females. Females exclusively territorial. Territory/range varies according to prey distribution and age, ranging 60-1,300ha (150-3,200 acres) in Europe; averaging 175ha (432 acres) in good quality habitat of NE Scotland. Females patrol range more frequently than males, but male ranges larger. Records (Germany) of cats dispersing 55km (34 mi.). Ranges marked with urine spraying, droppings left in prominent locations and secretion from sebaceous (oil) glands on head, chin and at base of tail. Dens during autumn and winter in holes in trees, rock crevices and disused mammal burrows.
Diet & Feeding: Catholic diet with prey up to size of roe kids/lambs. Bulk of diet is small mammals (mice, shrews and voles) and lagomorphs (rabbits and hares). Proportion of prey in diet varies with local abundance/season. Lagomorphs, for example, contribute ~70% in east Scotland vs. 47% in west; in France, edible dormice (Glis glis) important prey during autumn. Rodent prey caught with 61% success rate. Birds, amphibians, fish and insects taken occasionally. Grass and bracken eaten, presumably to help pass ingested fur.
Morphological studies suggest better eyesight cf. domestic cats; retinal ganglia (low light) density up to twice that of domestic cats and cone density >2x. Can apparently smell meat up to 200m (220 yds) away.
Reproduction: Seasonal breeders with (likely) induced ovulation. Females in oestrus 5-8 days, cycling every 2 wks if mating unsuccessful – scent marks frequently and calls (yowls) reported during February. Mate late winter into spring, most matings during February/March, with peak of births in May (April-September). Gestate 9-10 wks before giving birth to upto 8 (typically 4) kittens in rudimentary den without bedding material. Kittens 100-160g (3.5-5.6 oz.) at birth, fully furred and darker in appearance cf. adults. Eyes open ~1.5 wks, milk dentition by 7 wks, permanent dentition ~6.5 months; suckle ~7 wks, weaned at ~3 months and family unit separates ~5 months. Female raises litter alone. Males sexually mature at 1yr, females ~10 months and some may breed in first year.
Behaviour and Sociality: Solitary and largely territorial. Come together to mate when male and female move and hunt together – several males may follow single female. Some evidence that female teaches kittens to hunt. Vocalisations (purrs, mews, growls, hisses, yowling) and body posture as per domestic cats.
Predators: Few, if any, predators as adults, but kittens may be taken by golden eagles, foxes, stoats and martens.
Threats: Considered “Critically Endangered” by IUCN Red List. Historically, wildcats were persecuted by gamekeepers and landowners who considered them a threat to livestock. While such persecution still occurs today it is much reduced largely because populations are so low and wildcats – often recorded as accidental (i.e. cats caught in traps meant for foxes). Strict legal protection afforded by Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (added in 1988) and Conservation (Natural Habitats) Regulations 1994.
Current threats remain mostly anthropogenic but also include a decline in the rabbit population and some very harsh winters. Arguably the most significant threat is hybridisation with domestic cats. Many authorities consider there to be few, if any, purebred animals living in the wild, with most individuals having some domestic cat ancestry. Skull morphology/volume can distinguish wild from domestic, as can gut length, genetic analysis (Q-test) and up to 15 pelage characteristics. Domestic cats also appear to pass diseases and parasites to wildcats.
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The natural history "bible" covering all British mammals with detailed coverage of their biology, behaviour, ecology and taxonomy written by experts in the field and referenced to the primary literature.
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