Here, Kitty Kitty…

When asked about the worlds most endangered species, many people automatically think of creatures such as rhinos in Africa or Gorillas in East Africa. However one of the most threatened animals on the planet can be found right on our doorstep – the Scottish Wildcat, Felis silvestris silvestris. A regional subspecies of the European Wildcat (Felis silvestris) which is found throughout Europe, this characteristic version of an oversized tabby is in reality the UKs last remaining large carnivore, that has withstood threats that wiped out predators such as the lynx, wolf and bear. With some researchers implying that there are as few as 35 pure individuals left, this makes this elusive feline 17 times rarer than the Amur tiger and 45 times rarer than the Giant Panda. But with scientists in debate about what how to classify the Scottish Wildcat, the question is: how do you save a species when you can’t even decide what it is?

Picture: Michael Gäbler [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Picture: Michael Gäbler [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

With its characteristic stocky build and distinctive pelage (coat pattern) this imposing tabby originally evolved from the first wildcat Felis lunensis 2 million years ago, creating the wildcat Felis silvestris. After the end of the last ice age (approx. 9000 years ago) the UK was separated from mainland Europe, isolating this island population. So far, so good. But from here on, things get a little complicated.

Defining the taxonomic group of the wildcat has met considerable debate. Are they a separate island subspecies (Felis silvestris grampia) or are they still just a regional population of the European Wildcat? Either way, they have been separated geographically for the last 9,000 years and, in the UK at least, this kitty is facing some serious problems.

In typical British (and to be honest, many other countries) fashion, over the centuries the majority of predators have either been exterminated or had their range dramatically reduced. The wildcat, which once ranged over the entirety of the mainland Britain, is now confined to the Scottish highlands where it remains highly elusive. A natural fear of man has been exacerbated by continued persecution such as hunting for pelts or for the often misguided belief that they would take lambs and other livestock (they are big, but not that big). Originally favouring woodland, the wildcat has at least adapted to hunting in a wider variety of habitats such as meadows and moorland. Its main prey are rabbits, supplemented by other small rodents plus birds and reptiles if the opportunity arises.

So what is holding the wildcat back? Surely now, they are unlikely to be hunted? After all they are now classified as a European Protected Species, making hunting and killing them illegal. Unfortunately they are still likely to be persecuted by gamekeepers if they come into contact with shoots. Feral cats make up 1.2 million of the 6 million cats present in the UK, and there are no laws restricting the culling of true ferals. In the heat of the moment, it is unlikely for a wildcat to look much different to a rather butch looking tabby to the untrained eye.

This leads us on to the main problem, hybridization with our pet felines. Introduced by the Romans 2000 years ago, our pet kitties were originally domesticated from combinations of the European, Near Eastern, Central Asian and Southern African Wildcats. Unfortunately this spectacular combination of morphological similar species means they can interbreed – and successfully produce fertile hybrids. With most species of the cat family being unable to hybridize due to physical or geographical isolation (for example lions and tigers only ever interbreed when ignorant fools introduce them in captivity) this unique situation is agreed to be the most devastating fact affecting wildcat survival in the UK.

So what does this mean for our wildcats? Well, for one thing it puts the identification of pure bred wildcats in the field on par with winning the lottery. Or at least, that’s what it must feel like. With such a reclusive species, the chances of seeing one are incredibly remote so alternative methods (such as camera trapping or live trapping) must be employed. Although its distinctive pelage can help with initial identification (for example, a pure bred wild cat should be free from white markings as this indicates it is a hybrid) a universal classification system of what a wildcat actually is seems needs to be established, although sadly this appears to be lacking across conservation groups. A minor point…

With an effective and well-designed conservation programme in place, steps can be taken to either remove domestic cats from the breeding population (i.e. via neutering), educating members of the public about the wildcat plight and establishing controlled captive breeding populations if needed. Saving the wildcat from with as few as 35 left may seem like an impossible task, but the Black Footed ferret and Mauritius Kestrel were recovered from populations of just 18 and 4 individuals respectively. There’s still hope yet.

There appear to be two main groups currently involved in the conservation of the Scottish Wildcat, ‘Wildcat Haven’ and ‘Highland Tiger’, both with rather different approaches. While I’ll leave you to make your own mind up (links below) personally I find the approach of the Wildcat Haven organisation much more logical. There is simply no point in saving or protecting hybrids. Should Australia stop protecting it’s Dingos and allow them to keep interbreeding with feral dogs? What’s the difference in having a load of lanky Labradors hanging around instead? Ok, maybe a bit dramatic. But you get my drift. I also feel that Wildcat Haven have the right idea in creating established areas were all feral domestic cats are neutered, eliminating the possibility of interbreeding. Whilst other organisations have advocated the culling of feral cats as a control method, I hardly see this as a conductive technique to getting members of the public on board with wildcat conservation. After all, en mass cat killing hardly goes alongside cat saving. But maybe that’s just me.

So the final key point remains, just why should we save them when they are so close to extinction? After a heated debate with a non-wildlife minded friend recently on this exact point, it really made me think. Do we not have a responsibility to protect our native species and, as an animal loving nation, what right do we have to project species conservation principles on other countries when we cannot protect our own? It is a shame that the Scottish Wildcat is not as cute as the panda, nor as majestic as say, the African Elephant, but it’s ours, and that should be enough. So maybe it’s time that this obscure feline hit the headlines more and got a bit of extra help before it’s too late.

Links:
http://www.wildcathaven.co.uk/
http://www.highlandtiger.com/

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Leanne Hubbard

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