The Domestic cat (Felis catus) is descended from the African Wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) and retains many aspects of the origin specie’s nature instincts and behaviours. They are predators that have evolved to spent 6-8 hours a day hunting for a variety of rodent-sized prey, they’re agile with sensitivity to the high pitched frequencies used by rodents in communication and possess highly sensitive and mobile vibrissae, whiskers. It is due to their efficiency at catching rodents that they were first domesticated and are today found free roaming alongside almost every human settlement.
There are an estimated 8 million cats being kept in UK homes with up to an additional million living feral. Animal welfare charity the RSPCA described the UK cat population as having reached ‘Crisis point’ and has ‘continued to spiral out of control.’ With an increasing number of cats finding themselves unwanted or abandoned this is mainly due to 85 per cent of all litters being unplanned and a queen’s ability to give birth from as young as 4 months of age.
This is not only alarming news for cat lovers to hear as they fear population to rise above number of suitable homes but devastating for local wildlife.
The Mammal Society estimates that the UK’s cat population catches and brings home 275 million prey species a year, including 55 million birds. Cats are believed to have a ‘return rate’ – the number of prey items returned home – of 30 per cent. The housecat population in the UK is maintained by humans and has no need to hunt yet are allowed to free roam and will hunt even when not hungry, occasionally attempting to share their kills with human companions.
Predation is not the only impact of domesticated cats on local wildlife, they also alters behaviour.
Gardens are an important breeding habitat for 20% of UK native bird species including house sparrows, blackbirds and song thrushes, species known to be in decline. A report published in Journal of Applied Ecology in 2013 observed that in the presence of their cat test subject nesting garden birds responded with alarm calls and aggressive behaviour including attacks on the subject, this reduced the food delivery to the nest by a third for up to 90 minutes after exposure and over 24 hour, almost a quarter of the exposed nests had been predated by crows and magpies. This predation on test sites could be linked to a potential weakening of defences after expose to feline species, the study concludes.
It is important that measures are taken to promote responsible cat ownership by reducing unwanted litters (a substantial effort is already being carried out by RSPCA and Cats Protection Trust) and curbing predation by keeping cats inside after dusk, or following the American trend of keeping a house cat indoors permanently for safety of both cat and wildlife, and setting up bird feeders in areas away from dense vegetation that can be used for ambush.
That said it is inconclusive as to the extent of the domestic cat’s impact on native species, the RSPB’s website states that although precautions should be taken to reduce predications there is no evidence of direct impact on UK-wide bird populations stating that it is ‘most likely’ that the birds predated by cats would have died from other causes
It is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season, so cats are unlikely to have a major impact on populations. If their predation was additional to these other causes of mortality, this might have a serious impact on bird populations. Despite a UK-wide trend towards the decline of species the second most reported species caught in UK gardens is the Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleu), which has experienced a population increase by over a quarter since 1966.
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