Scotland. One of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, home to spectacular wildlife and rich, vast habitats. Many of our finest species including the sea eagle, golden eagle, capercaillie and pine martin can all be found here. But in the depths of this wilderness lives another animal and he is one of our rarest wildlife specimens. Elusive and secretive, this carnivore has been roaming our lands since the Ice Age and is the very icon of the Scottish wilderness. Also know as the ‘Highland Tiger’ he is prevalent in British mythology, considered as bold and ferocious, as well as the most untameable of all British creatures. Worshipped as a forest spirit, clans formed under the name of this animal, with the name of the Chief of the Clan Sutherland being Morair Chat, meaning ‘Great Man of The Cats.’ I am, of course, talking about Felis silvestris, or, as he is more widely known, the wildcat.
So what is a wildcat? Is he just the same as our domesticated specimens, but a rebellious tear away, living alone in the wild? Aren’t all cats wild loners, disappearing off for days before being spied in the neighbour’s window, looking out with an expression of: ‘what?’ Ok, so maybe that was just behaviour exhibited by my family’s cats.
But no! Not quite. The wildcat is larger, stockier, stronger with longer legs and a larger head when compared to our domesticated Lords and Ladies. However, the tabby cat and the wildcat have proved difficult to distinguish at times, not only due to their similar appearance, but also because of prevalent interbreeding, creating hybrid offspring. But, with careful sleuthing ability that would put Sherlock Holmes to shame, they can be told apart due to subtle differences in stripes and tails.
So where can we find this species? Well, when it comes to habitat, wildcats are very versatile and they’re not overly fussy. They need two things for their survival: food and shelter (much like our domestic cats). Woodlands, young forest plantations and mountainous areas can all provide the needs of this species, though when it comes to hunting, more open areas and grasslands are to their advantage. Taking rabbits, small birds and reptiles, the wild cat is a cunning hunter. If you have a cat, you will no doubt be familiar with this kind of hunting behaviour. For example, my family used to have a Tom tabby cat who liked to hunt. Liked to hunt, but not kill (thankfully). No, Monty preferred to bring the blue tits and coal tits into the house alive and then leave them for his human servants (us) to deal with. Many times we would return home and he would be lying in his self-made aviary, tail flicking up and down, clearly very pleased with his achievement. Then, he would dedicate the rest of his day to watching us round up the little birds and release them back to the wild. But I digress!
Unfortunately, our wildcats are critically endangered and hold the unfavourable accolade of our most endangered species. They are the very reddest of the red listed. Indeed, latest surveys suggest that there are less than 100 of these fabulous felines left in the wild although exact numbers are difficult to verify due to their secretive nature. Wildcats suffered great historic declines due to a number of factors including deforestation and human persecution, but today one of their main threats relates to something I mentioned earlier; hybridisation with domestic cats. This breeding dilutes the gene pool and reduces mating between true wildcats, impacting numbers even further. Disease is another problem that faces our highland tigers, with wildcats being very susceptible to parasites and the discovery of the presence of FIV, referred to as the cat version of AIDs.
But don’t give up hope just yet! Let’s look at the positives; at least we know about the problems. And if we know of them, we can attempt to deal with them. There is a ray of sunshine for this species and many organisations and charities are determined to see the recovery of our wildcats. The Scottish Wildcat Association is working hard in Scotland, with farmers and communities to improve the survival chances of the species and carrying out research into their populations. In 2013, there was a news item saying that the wildcat could be extinct within two years. Two years later, they’re still here! With a bit of grit and determination and if we’re as feisty and ferocious as our wildcats in our efforts to save them, hopefully, we will see our highland tigers thrive once again in the wild.
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