The Scottish Wildcat
(felis sylvestris grampia)
Description | Conservation | History | Breeding program | Identification
Meet the neighbours
Captive breeding is sadly the only method we have of insuring the future of this charismatic species, and the official Scottish wildcat breeding-for-release program operates across a number of wildlife parks and private collections across the UK.
The primary aims of the program are to build a sustainable captive population of pure breeding pairs enabling releases into carefully selected areas of the wild to strengthen population numbers and enable wildcat expansion beyond the current strongholds.
To date completely unsupported outside of the handful of parks and volunteers running it, we look forward to injecting finances and commercial sponsorships into the program enabling breeders to utilise the latest enclosure designs and build strong and effective public education campaigns alongside their breeding activities; you can learn more about these plans on our World Leading Breeding Campaign page.
Before reintroductions are a possibility it is important to assess what areas are likely to prove most successful for wildcats, and to ensure that threats such as domestic cats, major road systems or human hostility are absent from the area so that reintroduced animals have the best chance of survival and a healthy and pure wildcat population can establish itself naturally.
The activity of breeders is closely recorded in an official document called a studbook, looked after and maintained by the studbook keeper. This is a document listing all the Scottish wildcats in captivity in the world with information on their family tree, birthdate and purity. It ensures primarily that related cats are never bred to each other and makes it possible to co-ordinate a unified effort to build a much larger captive population.
The studbook and keeper are both monitored by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) Felid Taxon Advisory Group, who monitor all studbooks relating to European species. The software used for the studbook is called ISIS (International Species Information System) and only available to registered zoological institutions. At present the studbook is kept by Neville Buck at Howlett's Wildlife Parks in England.
Another duty of the studbook keeper is not only to stop relatives from mating but to establish which cats may make a good lifetime pair and which may produce the purest offspring, for this he works with leading expert Dr Andrew Kitchener at the National Museums of Scotland, who looks at each cat and grades it's purity as;
3; Hybridised and unsuitable for breeding
Allan Paul, the studbook keeper between 2000-2007 inherited an out of date and innaccurate studbook that had been abandoned for several years. Through painstaking work with Dr Kitchener he returned the document to a very viable, accurate and mostly up to date document suitable for rebuilding the population.
2; Some hybridisation but suitable for breeding
1; Pure in all respects
Sadly, he also discovered that of around 50 cats in captivity and graded for purity, only ten cats qualified as a "2" and no cats were considered pure, of those ten most had been bred by Allan and were related so couldn't breed with each other. In spite of these challenges a great success of Allan's time was the breeding of the first cats to be graded as pure "1" wildcats; further confirming theory that marginally hybridised cats can "breed out" their domestic genes and raising hopes for the future of the wild and captive populations.
Since Allan's retirement the studbook has passed to Neville Buck at Howlett's Wildlife Parks in England, an internationally reknowned organisation specialising in the captive breeding and reintroduction of feline, primate and other endanged species. Neville is now working hard with Dr Kitchener and a recently discovered DNA based blood test to establish absolute detail of purity and grade the remaining few ungraded captive cats in the hope of injecting fresh genes into the current population.
Frequently asked questions
Isn't captive breeding cruel?
It can be if it isn't in professional hands. Captivity is a highly regrettable place for any wild animal to be, and in some species like polar bears captivity can certainly be seen as an act of cruelty. The majority of cats adapt well though they can suffer from boredom (most visitors to parks will have seen large cats pacing their cage), or stress if they have no privacy from the public. Most UK wildlife parks are well aware of these issues and where possible will build enclosures with places to hide, scratch and climb, and experiment with exercises like cat toys or hiding food so that it has to be searched out and "hunted". Breeding cats are often kept off of exhibit, at private centres or given adequate privacy in their enclosure. We are already working to help breeders ensure that all captive Scottish wildcats are kept in the very best enclosures anywhere in the world and well prepared for a life in the wild after release.
Do you use artifical insemination or cloning?
No. At present all Scottish wildcat captive breeding is kept as natural as possible. Male and female pairs are very carefully established sometimes over two years and simply given as much privacy, security and lifestyle satisfaction as possible; a happy and secure wildcat will breed without the need of any artifical intervention and most wildcats are exceptional mothers, any veterinary contact is kept to the absolute minimum.
Are cats constantly moved around simply to breed with other cats?
No. Movement is kept to an absolute minimum as it greatly unsettles wildcats, they will only breed once a year anyway so ideally they will remain in their enclosure/territory with the same mate for most of their lives. Moves typically occur when a cat becomes too old for breeding, a centre closes down or a proposed pair simply don't get on.
Do you capture wild living cats and put them in parks?
No wildcat has been taken from the wild in decades. At present the goal is to selectively breed from the current population to get as pure and unrelated a population as possible over the course of a few generations. It may become necessary to take an unpopular route and make a small number of wild captures to ensure the program can build a large enough captive population, but the widely held hope is that this will not be necessary.
Do keepers tame the cats or get to know them?
No. Scottish wildcats are famed as the only untamable creature there is, they really dislike human contact so it is kept to an absolute minimum. Some individuals may allow one special person to get near to them or touch them but most find it highly stressful. Taming any captive animal is also counter productive as they cannot then be re-released into the wild, captive breeding must maintain each creature's unique personality and temperament as well as it's outward appearance.
Can I visit your cats?
The Scottish Wildcat Association does not own or look after any wildcats, we simply support the studbook and officially recognised breeding centres. There is a list of public centres at the top of this page who actively participate in the breeding-for-release program.