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Scottish wildcat

What action is going on for this species?

The following will give you information on what work has been taking place through the Species Action Framework:

Species background

The Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris) is the only native member of the Felidae, the cat family, to be found in the wild in Britain.

Why is this on the Species Action List?

It meets criterion 1a of the Species Action Framework as a species for conservation action by virtue of its decline in range and abundance over the past 100 years.  The results of an ongoing survey will enable suitable management action to be targeted in particular areas.

It is a top predator in the Scottish context, and a species which is likely to increase the profile of species management work and benefits to biodiversity.

It is not a UKBAP Priority Species at present but it is under active consideration as part of the Priority Species and Habitats Review.  It is included on the Scottish Biodiversity List. It is also listed on Annex IV of the EC Habitats Directive.  It is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as amended, and is identified as a European Protected Species on the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994, as amended.

Habitat, distribution and abundance

In general, the Scottish wildcat prefers to live in the margins of mountains and moorlands with rough grazing, often combined with forests and some crops.  However, research suggests that animals in the east of Scotland prefer marginal agricultural areas with moorlands, pastureland and woodlands, whereas animals in the west favour rough grazing and moorland with limited pastures.  They avoid high mountain areas, exposed coasts and fertile lowlands with intensive agriculture.

Formerly distributed across Europe, Asia and Africa, the species became extinct in Austria and the Netherlands in the first half of the 20th century.  They are thought to have declined in the Czech and Slovack Republics and are confined to three major areas of the former Soviet Union: the Carpathian Mountains of the Ukraine, the Kodry region of Moldova and the Caucasus mountain region between the Black and Caspian seas.  Elsewhere, in Europe, isolated populations are limited to the Iberian peninsula, Italy, north-east France-Luxembourg-Belgium, north-west Germany, eastern central Germany and the Balkans.

The current UK status of the Scottish wildcat is unclear. A questionnaire survey in 1983-87 suggested that the species was restricted to an area north of the Central Belt. A subsequent survey based on live-trapping and road kill/carcass records in the 1990s suggested that the distribution was limited to the north-east of Scotland (primarily Perthshire, Angus, Grampian and the eastern Highlands), with a small residual population in Argyll and Lochaber.

There are only two density estimates available for Scotland.  These are Glen Tanar, Deeside with 30 wildcats per 100 km2 and Ardnamurchan with an estimated 8 wildcats per 100 km2.  A 1995 study resulted in an estimate of 3,500 pre-breeding animals of independent age (over 5 months old) across Scotland.

General ecology

Wildcats have a dispersed, solitary social system and live alone for most of the year. They associate only during mating and rearing of kittens.  Wildcats scent-mark to maintain the exclusivity of their home ranges, which are larger for males than females.  Male ranges will overlap with females but the ranges of each gender are exclusive.

Females have only one litter in May and give birth to an average of four kittens, but they may come into oestrus again if they lose the litter early. 

The diet varies markedly across the country, with rabbits making up the majority of prey in the east (up to 70%) but only a minimal proportion in the west (34%).  Animals in the west prey primarily on voles and mice.  Wildcats are active both during daytime and nighttime, although they can be inactive for 24 hours in winter if the weather is inclement.

History of decline, contributory factors and current threats

The wildcat began to decline in Britain in the early 1800s and was lost from England and Wales by 1862.  The decline in Scotland continued into the 20th century and the range was confined to the north-east by the 1920s.  There was a small expansion in range, considered to be a reflection of increased numbers, over the following 20 years and the range has been stable since the 1940s, despite suggestions that numbers were increasing.

The threats to Scottish wildcat have been identified as: hybridisation with feral cats; predator control and incidental capture; disease; and, habitat fragmentation and degradation.

The 'Species Lead' at Scottish Natural Heritage Tel 0131 316 2615

Last updated on Tuesday 19th November 2013 at 11:38 AM. Click here to comment on this page