The UK’s only remaining native wild cat is now rarer than the Sumatran tiger. The Scottish wildcat (Felis Silvestris Silvestris) or ‘Highland Tiger’ as it is affectionately known was once found across the British mainland but is now confined to small, disjointed ranges in the Scottish highlands. As an isolated population of the European wildcat, these creatures have been part of our fauna for millennia upon millennia; but that may all be coming to an end.
Crepuscular and territorial, with a carnivorous diet largely consisting of rabbits, hare and rodents, the Scottish wildcat leads a solitary life up on the inhospitable Scottish highlands. Queens (as the females are referred) typically give birth to between one and seven kittens in late spring, with young going on to enjoy a lifespan of around six to eight years in the wild.
Traditionally forest dwellers, in more recent times these felids have had to make do with their habitat becoming ever more fragmented and difficult to inhabit due to the substantial deforestation of their territories. Additionally, hundreds of years of human influence and persecution have led to countless animals losing their lives to snares (accidental or intentional), the fur trade or being struck down on our roads.
But by far the biggest worry for the conservation of wildcats is the dilution of their genetic purity by hybridisation with feral domestic cats. Taxonomically, the wildcat and the domestic cat are the same species, enabling the hybrids to produce fertile offspring and thus compromising the genetic integrity of the wildcat for generations to come. With first reports of such breeding occurring around 200 years ago, a valid question would be whether pure Scottish wildcats even exist to this day.
However, the current wildcat population remains distinct enough for conservationists to deem them worthy of protection, and considerable efforts are being made to save the species from extinction. Past research has been thwarted with difficulty: a combination of their elusive behaviour, poor surveying methodologies, difficulties in identifying hybrids and insufficient funding has led to population estimates ranging wildly from 35 to 400 genetically pure wild animals.
Since these details have come to light, the Scottish wildcat has been listed in the CITES appendix II of endangered species and is now protected throughout Europe. Further efforts are also being made via a captive breeding program and several conservation projects aiming to address the myriad of problems facing the species.
Scottish Natural Heritage, for one, has devised an action plan aiming to carry out further investigative surveys, research the extent of hybridisation and genetic dilution, develop protocols for the management of nearby feral and cross-breed cats and provide guidance to avoid any adverse impacts from forestry operations and development projects.
Until these aims are achieved it is down to the cat-owning population to acknowledge their responsibilities as animal owners and ensure that their cats are neutered before they are allowed to further endanger a species that they have already harmed so much.
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