Are There Wildcats in Scotland? What to Know!
In 2019, over 150 million people visited Scotland. People come for the architecture, the history, and the Loch Ness Monster (well, maybe). And soon there will be something a little different joining Nessie in legend: the Highland tiger, also known as the Scottish wildcat. So, the short answer to if there are wildcats in Scotland is yes. But it’s a simplistic answer because soon the Scottish wildcat might not exist anymore.
It is considered to be “Critically Endangered”, but all hope isn’t lost. There are steps in place to try and save this beautiful animal. Read on to find out what makes the wildcat stand out from the domestic cat, and how its numbers have possibly dwindled down to the hundreds.
What Is a Scottish Wildcat?
They’re not to be confused with the domestic cat, although it is now harder to distinguish a true wildcat from a domestic cat. Population genetics studies have shown that wildcats are breeding with domestic cats, creating a genetically diluted wildcat-domestic hybrid.
A true wildcat is larger, stockier, and more robust, with longer legs, and ears that stick out at the side of a larger, flatter head. They have a bushy, black-tipped tails with thick stripes. The thick stripes that appear on the body are also darker and thicker and they don’t have the white patches that you generally see on domestic cats.
The Classification Debate
If your cat is nearby, look at him, he’s possibly napping on the sofa next to you, or pushing a glass off your coffee table. DNA testing would show he’s a subspecies of wildcat, one called Felis catus.
It’s believed the domestic cat emerged around 9,000–10,000 years ago and descended from the Felis silvestris lybica or the African wildcat, which can be found throughout Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Further out you’d find the Felis silvestris ornate which is also known as the Asiatic wildcat, found in Central Asia and Western India.
This brings us to the European wildcat, Felis silvestris silvestris that has a thicker, bulkier coat than its Asiatic and African family members. Some mammal experts believe the Scottish wildcat is an isolated population of the European wildcat, while others believe they are their own subspecies of wildcat, the Felis silvestris grampia.
Why Does This Matter?
It matters because a cat that potentially evolved from a population of European wildcats over 9,000 years ago might not exist anymore.
Wildcats were once widespread across mainland Britain; however, it is now estimated that there are only 100–300 Scottish wildcats left. Since medieval times, the wildcat has been hunted for sport and killed because they were deemed to be “vermin.”
They were once routinely shot or trapped, with some tragically becoming taxidermy specimens in Victorian drawing rooms. Thanks to this persecution and woodland clearance, England, Wales, and southern Scotland lost their wildcat populations in the 19th century.
They exist now, in small, isolated populations in northern Scotland but they still face a vast number of threats. From urbanization like loss of home, road accidents, or accidental death through predator control, to hybridization. This genetic introgression is their biggest threat today, where the wildcat’s genetic pool is replaced by that of the domestic cat.
How Big Are Scottish Wildcats?
This is difficult to answer thanks to hybridization. However, it is possible that the true wildcat is closer to 100% larger than the domestic cat. The figures we have are that the average size of the head and body of a male now is 59 centimeters while the average female sits at 54 centimeters. The tail length can range from 26–33 centimeters and on average adult males weigh over 5 kilograms with the female coming in at 4 kilograms and the kittens weighing in around 100–160 grams.
What Do Scottish Wildcats Eat?
The Scottish landscape offers wildcats a variety of habitats which includes forests, open land, and river-side areas to name a few. These habitats offer abundant prey options such as rodents. Those living on the east coast of Scotland primarily dine on rabbits, which can make up 70% of their diet.
Where rabbit is less common in the west of Scotland, wildcats will eat mice and vole instead. They’ve been known to eat birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and even insects. In very rare instances they’ve even been known to bring down deer fawn, which can put into perspective how big true wildcats are.
When Do Wildcats Usually Have Babies?
Scottish wildcats are solitary, which changes during the mating season around January–March, where the male will seek out females. After a gestation period of around two and a half months, the female can produce a litter of between one and eight kittens.
The wildcat kitten will stay with their mother for around six months, at which time they will leave to establish their own territories. Males reach sexual maturity at around 9 months of age and females at around 12 months.
Saving the Scottish Wildcat
There are efforts in place to save the Scottish wildcat. Saving Wildcats (#SWAforLife) is a European partnership project which is dedicated to the conservation and recovery of the Scottish wildcat and their plan is:
1. Establish a “Breeding for Release” Center
This will be Britain’s first large-scale dedicated conservation “breeding for release” center. It’s found in the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park in the Cairngorms National Park. The center will bring together experts to develop the necessary life skills for wildcats to thrive in the wild.
2. Grow the Wildcat Population
Following a pre-release training program, that the wildcat experts and a dedicated veterinary unit in this center have worked with, 20 wildcats will be released into the wild each year. They will have a GPS collar to track and record their movements and behavior.
3. Remove Threats
To start with, the wildcats will potentially be released within the Cairngorms National Park. Following this, safe spaces will be created in the Highlands for wildcat reintroductions. The long-term plan is to extend these safe spaces into other locations in Scotland and, eventually, other locations across the UK.
4. Work with Local Communities
Education and communication with local communities are key to sustaining the existence of the Scottish wildcat. It’s about changing their perception as vermin and understanding how wildcats can boost economies through wildlife tourism.
While there are Scottish wildcats in Scotland, they are almost as elusive as Nessie is. Realistically, the answer to the question about whether there are wildcats in Scotland may change soon, which is why the efforts being put in place to save them are so critical.
Through education, threat removal, and the reintroduction of 20 wildcats a year into quiet, isolated spots, the wildcat families across Scotland should thrive. Tourists will then be able to add the Highland tiger to their “must-see” lists alongside the historical buildings and lochs that Scotland is so famous for.
Featured Image Credit: Mark Bridger, Shutterstock