Above: Scottish wildcat on display in the Survival gallery at National Museum of Scotland.
The Scottish wildcat is Britain’s last native cat species. Although closely related, it is not the ancestor of the domestic cat, Felis catus, which originated from the Middle Eastern wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica, at least 4,000 years ago.
Wildcats are longer legged, more robust and about 25% bigger than domestic cats; females are about the same size as male domestic cats. Wildcats are striped tabby cats with a ringed, bushy, blunt, black-tipped tail.
Wildcats are found in Scotland north of the Central Belt, but used to occur throughout Britain. Habitat loss, hunting and persecution led to their decline and they almost became extinct at the beginning of the 20th century. A relaxation of persecution during and after the First World War, combined with the establishment of the Forestry Commission in 1919, which resulted in much needed woodland habitat, led to the wildcat’s gradual recovery.
However, the recovery of the wildcat population during the last 100 years has resulted in hybridisation with feral domestic cats. The Scottish wildcat is probably Critically Endangered and needs urgent conservation action.
How to identify a wildcat
Although wildcats are fully protected by law, they may be killed accidentally or illegally in snares or during lamping – using a torch to pick up an animal’s eyeshine at night before shooting it. However, many hybrids, which are not protected, may be confused with wildcats. This problem affects their legal protection and conservation. Research at National Museums Scotland and Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit has identified seven key features of the skin markings that allow wildcats to be distinguished from domestic cats and hybrids.
Right: Illustration of seven key features of the skin markings that allow wildcats to be identified. A is the Scottish wildcat and B is the domestic tabby cat. Can you see the differences in this diagram?
(1) Four nape stripes broad, wavy and unfused. (2) Two shoulder stripes. (3) Unbroken flank stripes. (4) Dorsal stripe on lower back always stops at the root of the tail. (5) No spots on rump; stripes may be broken, but distinct (6) Distinct aligned tail bands. (7) Tip of tail blunt and black
Above: Markings of the Scottish Wildcat and a domestic cat.
In this video, Dr Andrew Kitchener, Principal Curator of Vertebrates, explains how to tell the difference between a wildcat and a hybrid, feral or domestic cat.
Conservation in action
With the growing realisation that the Scottish wildcat is once again threatened with extinction, Scottish Natural Heritage established the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan Steering Group to develop a conservation action plan. The group is made up of key organisations that have an interest and expertise in the wildcats, including the Cairngorms National Park Authority, Forestry Commission Scotland, National Museums Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Scottish Gamekeepers Association and the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
The Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan was launched at the National Museum of Scotland on 24 September 2013 by Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Paul Wheelhouse. The plan lays out a comprehensive approach to wildcat conservation, including field research, genetics, captive breeding, encouragement of responsible domestic cat ownership and increasing wider awareness of the threats to wildcats more generally. The plan will run to 2019 with the aim of establishing at least five viable wildcat populations in Scotland.
Scottish Wildcat Action
This video introduces Scottish Wildcat Action, the first national project to save the wildcat.
Is your cat a #Supercat?
Half a million people in Scotland own a cat and there are 100,000 stray and feral cats too – yet there are fewer than 300 Scottish wildcats. Our native cat is on the edge of extinction, but cat owners can take action to help.
Domestic cats (pet, stray or feral) and wildcats can all share disease and breed with each other. Scottish Wildcat Action believes that neutering, vaccinating and micro-chipping domestic cats is the best way to protect wildcats from further decline – and it also helps pet cats to be healthier and safer.
Scottish Wildcat Action wants people in Scotland to take action to neuter, vaccinate and microchip their pet and farm cats to prevent diseases like Feline Leukaemia (FeLV) and Feline Aids (FIV) from spreading and to stop cats getting lost or having unwanted kittens.
Supercats are pet or farm cats that have been micro-chipped, neutered and have up-to-date vaccinations. You can find out more about the Supercat campaign and make a pledge to chip, neuter and vaccinate your cat here: www.scottishwildcataction.org/supercat