The Scottish wildcat is the only native species of cat still living wild in Britain today. There are believed to be fewer than 400 remaining in the wild and trying to conserve the species is a major challenge for wildlife conservationists.
The elusive and charismatic Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia) is one of the UK’s few remaining mammalian predators. It is larger in size than the domestic cat and feeds on rabbits, rodents and occasionally birds. It is an important Caledonian Forest species, denning within the forest and often foraging around the edge, in fields and scrub. A litter of 3-4 kittens is born in May. It represents the most northerly population of European wildcats and is a significant part of Scotland’s natural and cultural heritage.
The Scottish wildcat was once found across Britain but is now confined to isolated populations in Scotland, predominantly in the Highlands, where it faces a number of major threats. Habitat loss has massively decreased its numbers and led to fragmentation of remaining populations; feral cats have introduced domestic feline diseases into the population; and, sadly, persecution still occurs, with up to a quarter of the population believed to be killed annually by shooting and snaring. However, perhaps the main threat faced by the species is hybridisation with domestic and feral cats. Wildcats will freely breed with domestic cats and produce hybrids, reducing the genetic integrity of the species. The diagram below illustrates the differences between a hybrid (left) and a true Scottish wildcat (right).
From Scottish Wildcats: Naturally Scottish by Kerry Kilshaw (Scottish Natural Heritage 2011)
Although conservation of any species with low numbers is difficult, the wildcat provides a particular challenge. The issue of hybridisation means that of the estimated 400 remaining cats, we do not know how pure they are. There is a chance that the completely pure Scottish wildcat does not exist at all, and that all remaining wildcats have some proportion of domestic genes in them. If this is the case, should valuable funds be used to try to conserve a species which may technically already be extinct?
The Cairngorms Wildcat Project, led by Trees for Life board member David Hetherington, has recently come to an end. It involved extensive camera trap surveys across the Cairngorms National Park, working with gamekeepers to reduce the numbers of wildcats that are shot, and encouraging people to neuter domestic cats to reduce the incidences of cross-breeding. Similar work is being carried out in Ardnamurchan by the Scottish Wildcat Association. Another important strategy is captive breeding. A number of facilities breed wildcats in captivity, and there is hope that in the future, with good management, genetically strong captive wildcats could be released into areas of good habitat to bolster the wild genetic pool.
“If we lose the Scottish wildcat (which is worryingly possible), future generations will ask why in the 21st century did the people who could save this iconic animal let it disappear. We are the ones who can save this animal and if we care and do enough we easily can.”
There have been a few potential sightings of wildcats across our Project Area, however nothing has been confirmed. To gain some accurate data we recently carried out a survey on our estate at Dundreggan, using baited camera traps. This is part of a three year survey that Kerry Kilshaw, of Oxford University’s WildCRU, is carrying out across Scotland in an attempt to gain a clear picture of the numbers, distribution and estimated degree of purity of wildcats.
Scottish wildcats are one of the real bastions of the Caledonian Forest. One of the prime threats faced by the species is habitat loss, so the work done by Trees for Life in creating new swathes of suitable woodland could be imperative for the future of the species in the Highlands. Although Scotland has many plantation forests, these offer very little diversity and it is the habitat provided by mature mixed woodland such as the Caledonian Forest, that wildcats require. For a predator to thrive there needs to be an adequate prey base, and the creation of new forest will provide habitat for many of the species that the wildcat feeds on, as well as suitable den sites for wildcats themselves.
Please neuter your cat if you live in Scotland and report any potential wildcat sightings.
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