The ‘Scottish’ Wildcat is the last surviving native member of the cat family to be found in the wild in Britain. Once roaming the entirety of mainland Britain, pure Wildcats are now confined to the remote wilds of Scotland north of Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Considered by some to be an isolated population of the widespread and Locally Common European Wildcat Felis sylvestris, experts such as Dr Paul O’Donoghue, Chief Scientific Advisor at the Wildcat Haven (a fieldwork based conservation project creating a safe haven for Scottish Wildcats in the West Highlands of Scotland) and expert advisor to the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, consider it a distinct and Critically Endangered subspecies in its own right F. s. grampia.
Because of widespread hybridisation with feral cats, defining what a ‘true’ Wildcat is has become a subject of controversy. However the Wildcat has certain pelage characteristics which are considered to positively correlate to its genetic purity. This means that any wild-living cat which has all, or the majority of, the pelage characteristics of a Wildcat is to be considered to be a Wildcat; and should therefore be awarded protection as a Wildcat.
Having suffered from large scale persecution from gamekeepers in the past, the main threat to Scottish Wildcats now is genetic dilution from hybridisation with feral cats, domestic cats and existing hybrids. The exact population numbers are unknown, but a recent estimate by the Wildcat Haven suggests that as few as 35 genetically pure individuals remain in the wild – outnumbered by hybrids 1000:1. Like many other rare British mammals, Scottish Wildcats are also at risk from other factors including incidental harm from predator control activities, disease, and fragmentation or disturbance to habitats through development or changes in land management.
Scottish Wildcats are classed as a European protected species and are fully protected under the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 (as amended). It previously featured in a Species Action Framework, a conservation effort designed to improve its habitat and reduce threats of cross breeding with feral domestic cats which led to the initiation of the Cairngorms Wildcat Project (2009-2012).
A Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan was launched in September 2013 which aims to restore viable populations of this species north of the Highland boundary fault. It covers six years (2013 – 2019) and will be updated periodically.
Captive Scottish Wildcat by Adrian Bennett and used with permission
Let’s help protect Wildcats
It is an offence to deliberately or recklessly:
- capture, injure, kill or harass a Wildcat
- disturb a Wildcat in a den or any other structure or place it uses for shelter or protection
- disturb a Wildcat while it is rearing or otherwise caring for its young
- obstruct access to a den or other structure or place Wildcats use for shelter or protection or to otherwise deny the animal use of that place
- disturb a Wildcat in a manner that is, or in circumstances which are, likely to significantly affect the local distribution or abundance of the species
- disturb a Wildcat in a manner that is, or in circumstances which are, likely to impair its ability to survive, breed or reproduce, or rear or otherwise care for its young.
It is also an offence to:
- damage or destroy a breeding site or resting place of such an animal (note that this does not need to be deliberate or reckless to constitute an offence)
- keep, transport, sell or exchange or offer for sale or exchange any Wildcat or any part or derivative of one (if obtained after 10 June 1994)
- If you do see someone committing a crime involving Wildcats take as many photographs as you can. Recording the offender’s face is important of course, but their clothing, the bags they’re carrying, the equipment they’re using are all important too.
Do NOT try to get too close – taking some long-distance images is better than having a camera smashed or being attacked and hurt.
- If it is safe to do so note any relevant car registration plates.
- Note the location as accurately as possible, preferably using a grid reference (free smartphone apps are widely available). If the crime is in an urban area note the address or any other recognisable description of the location.
- If in the countryside take wide angle photographs of any landmarks (a tree, a distinctive fenceline, a hill) that might help officers relocate the crime scene. Imagine we were trying to find the same site again – what information might we need?
- To report a wildlife crime in Scotland call 101 and an operator will put you through to the relevant force. Give details as requested, and ask for a crime reference number. Alternatively call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.
Another alternative is to call an animal welfare charity:
- Scotland – Scottish SPCA Animal Helpline 03000 999 999
Captive Scottish Wildcat by Adrian Bennett and used with permission
Finding a dead Wildcat
Wildcats are occasionally found as road kill victims. Their bodies can provide important information on the species.
– If you find the carcass of a Wildcat in the Cairngorms National Park you can deliver it to the Highland Wildlife Park, Kincraig or the Scottish Natural Heritage office in Aviemore.
– If you find a dead Wildcat on the west coast of Scotland:
- Take photographs of the pelage (fur) characteristics; particularly flanks, tail, dorsal stripe. This will help to identify its genetic purity.
- Take photographs of the location in which you found the Wildcat with as many landscape features included as possible.
- If possible, record the grid reference of the location (many free smartphones apps are available which can provide this information in the field).
- Submit your photographs and coordinates to firstname.lastname@example.org and Scottish Natural Heritage’s Fort William office at email@example.com.
- If you are comfortable to do so, take a tissue sample of the wildcat; such as a small cut from the ear. This tissue contains DNA which can be used to determine the genetic purity of the wildcat. Place the tissue in a small, clean container or small freezer bag and take to Scottish Natural Heritage’s Fort William office as soon as possible. Ask SNH to contact Dr Paul O’Donoghue, who can conduct genetic tests on the tissue on your behalf.
Wildcat Haven is a fieldwork based conservation project creating a safe haven for Scottish wildcats in the West Highlands of Scotland.
“The Haven is not a small facility with fences and cages, it is a vast fieldwork region covering hundreds of square miles where wildcats can live entirely natural lives free from threats: an area protected by the efforts of the Wildcat Haven project and the local communities, businesses and landowners we work alongside.”
We would like to thank Heather-Louise Devey of Wild Intrigue for her help and support in compiling and writing this information.
“Igniting a curiosity and appreciation for Nature and all things wild was an essential starting-step in my life as a Wildlife Conservationist, but also as a person; this is what Wild Intrigue is all about.”
Page updated October 2014.
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