The Scottish wildcat is one of the most elusive and enigmatic of our carnivores. It is certainly amongst our rarest, having been persecuted in Britain since the Middle Ages and suffered a steady decrease in its range. The population probably reached its lowest level around 1914, when it was believed to be confined to the north and west of Scotland, where keepering pressure is traditionally less intense than elsewhere. A reduction in persecution following the First World War allowed the species to recolonise former parts of its range. They are now fully protected as a European Protected Species.
In general, the Scottish wildcat prefers to live on the woodland edge, in the margins of mountains and moorlands with, rough grazing, often combined with some crops. They avoid high mountain areas, exposed coasts and fertile lowlands with intensive agriculture. Like most cat species, they are essentially solitary except when breeding. They can be active both by day and by night and their diet varies markedly across the country, with rabbits making up the majority of prey in the east, while voles and mice predominate in the diet of western cats.
Estimates of wildcat numbers in Scotland have varied considerably and our knowledge about current populations is patchy.
The population of wild-living cats in Scotland contains a mixture of domestic and wildcat genes, and has varying physical characteristics. However, the available evidence suggests that there are genetically distinct groups which are also morphologically different, but share many of the same ecological and behavioural characters. Interbreeding between them is possible and, as the wildcat population was recovering from its historic low point in the early 20th century, the scarcity of female wildcats may have resulted in a rapid rise in hybridisation, as dispersing males encountered mostly female domestic cats.
While it is not possible to say, with certainty that a cat with the classic wildcat markings is genetically 'pure', cats with these markings can be placed in the non-domestic group and should be treated as such by those involved in wildlife management. In other words, wild-living cats that look like wildcats should be regarded as being legally protected. Feral cats that clearly do not possess these markings may therefore be legitimately controlled. A key to the main wildcat characteristics is available at Scottish Wildcat Action .
Research is ongoing to refine molecular and taxonomic measures that can differentiate between cats that are of predominantly wildcat origin as opposed to those of predominantly domestic ancestry.
More information on wildcats can be found in our Scottish Wildcats: Naturally Scottish series.
The main threat to Scottish wildcats is from hybridisation with feral cats, domestic cats and existing hybrids. They are also at risk from incidental harm from predator control activities, from disease, fragmentation or disturbance to habitats through development or changes in land management.
What are we doing?
Scottish wildcats were identified as a priority for conservation action in our Species Action Framework. This helped to initiate and support the Cairngorms Wildcat Project 2009-2012 (CWP). The CWP was a practical trial of conservation action and included:
- raising public awareness of the Scottish wildcat and what we can all do to contribute to their conservation;
- working with estates to ensure that the feral cat control they undertake for game management is wildcat-friendly and makes a positive contribution to wildcat conservation
- working with cat welfare charities to promote Trap-Neuter-and Release (TNR) schemes in areas where wildcats will benefit from these actions
- promoting responsible domestic cat ownership (neutering and vaccination) in the countryside through public information leaflets and working with local vets
- monitoring of wild-living cat populations on 5 estates and collating records of wildcat sightings and cat carcasses from road accidents to greatly enhance our knowledge of the cats living-wild in the Cairngorms National Park.
The final report can be viewed on the Cairngorms National Park Authority website.
SAF also supported some research on wildcats resulting in the following publications:
- SNH Commissioned Report 360: Scottish Wildcat Survey 2006-2008.
- SNH Commissioned Report 356: The Scottish wildcat: A comparison of genetic and pelage characteristics.
- SNH Commissioned Report 479: The use of camera trapping as a method to survey for the Scottish wildcat.
Following on from SAF, SNH is working with a wide range of partners to expand the programme of action for wildcats. Together we launched the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan (SWCAP) in 2013. The plan aims to halt their decline within six years (2013 - 2019). Details of the programme of action can be found in the plan. A scoping report was commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage to identify priority areas for wildcat conservation. The Scottish Wildcat Action project is now underway and is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The action plan partnership aims to deliver both the in situ actions in priority areas and the ex situ parts of the action plan. The Highland Tiger brand mark has been adopted by Scottish Wildcat Action and we aim to keep everyone informed of the work that is planned and already in progress through the project website and social media.
Last updated on Wednesday 5th August 2015 at 11:42 AM. Click here to comment on this page