The Scottish Wildcat
(felis sylvestris grampia)
Description | Conservation | History | Breeding program | Identification
Meet the neighbours
The evolution and history of the Scottish wildcat and the felids
The precise history of the cats is open to great debate, no one knows the exact story although the fossil record and genetic profiling make it possible for us to get a good general idea. The following information is intended as a general guide to the evolution of the family and the history of the Scottish wildcat in particular. Those perhaps looking for the short and sweet answer to where the Scottish wildcat came from would probably prefer to focus on the next paragraph alone...
The short version
9000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age glaciation, the English Channel formed and isolated a group of European wildcats in the British Isles. Over time they evolved unique characteristics in response to the particular habitats and species resident here growing bigger and more heavily camoflaged. As human led deforestation changed the face of Britain and the species was hunted close to extinction across England, Wales and most of Scotland it evolved beyond its forest led behaviour to be able to hunt over the full range of habitats available to it, and developed a greater mistrust of mankind than any other animal. Today, the small number of wildcats that survived persecution are now heavily outnumbered by human introduced feral domestic cats. The two species are closely related and readily mate, causing the wildcat genes to slowly water down and disappear into the huge domestic genepool. Recent conservation efforts have been led by scientists, naturalists and the interested public, with support from government and statutory agencies proving slow and, to date, ineffective.
That, however, is just the bare facts and only a glimpse at this remarkable cat's full story...
The long version
Miacids (65-25 million years ago)
As the age of dinosaurs came to an end a vacuum formed for a new dominant life form on the planet. The mammals were quickest to respond and species quickly evolved to fill the various ecological niches. One particular group of creatures called miacids were well adapted to forest life with a long tail for balance, strong claws for climbing and teeth specially developed for eating meat; they were one of the earliest steps in the carnivore chain and would eventually evolve into literally all the modern carnivores; cats, dogs, bears and even seals.
Proailurus (30-25 million years ago)
Proailurus first appeared in the European forests, larger than a miacid it had even more specialised teeth and fully retractable claws enabling it to hunt on the forest floor whilst keeping its claws razor sharp for climbing and killing. It retained superb climbing skills, balance and the ability to always land on its feet; proailurus literally means first cat.
Felis Lunensis (10 million years ago)
Proailurus developed into a range of cats both large and small that spread across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas via a land bridge, constantly evolving new species to deal with each new terrain and prey encountered. By 10 million years ago some of the first small cats that we might easily recognise today began to appear, including the first wildcat Felis Lunensis (or Martelli's wildcat), long since extinct its bones have been found across Europe including Britain which would have been part of the mainland at the time.
Felis Silvestris (2 million years ago)
Some evolutionary refinements led to Lunensis making way for Felis Silvestris; the European wildcat, which is still with us today in the remaining patches of European forest (today they are called Felis Silvestris Silvestris to avoid confusion with the other wildcats). By now the cats were perfectly adapted to life in a dense wild forest with excellent camoflage, night vision and hearing honed to perfection over the millennia. A true superpredator capable of tackling anything its own weight, and plenty of things larger, the species was an instant success and rapidly spread across the continent.
The last glaciation (20,000 years ago)
The European wildcats lived through times of great climactic change with ice age glaciations periodically relocating them south where they would evolve into the Asian and African forms of the wildcat; variously striped and spotted with thinner coats and less bulky bodies better adapted to life near the equator. Members of these wildcat bloodlines would also begin developing into the domestic cat years later around 10,000BC. Just before that, around 20,000 years ago, the last great glaciation began and kilometre-thick ice sheets spread as far south as London (pictured right), with the tree line retreating all the way to the Mediterranean. The wildcats were driven south again until around 10,000 years ago when the ice began to retreat and the trees and forest animals could return to Europe.
The British Isles (9,000 years ago)
As the ice retreated and the European wildcats returned home, this time joined by stone age man, sea level rise was also happening as a result of all the melting ice. The English Channel formed cutting off Britain and part of the wildcat population forever. Densely forested at the time the wildcat flourished on the island and, isolated from the European genepool, took on its own specialised form; growing big (one skeleton measured 4 feet from nose to tail) with a thick coat and tail to protect it from the ever changing weather.
The Roman Invasion (2,000 years ago)
Under the Romans cities grew larger, people more numerous, and hunting became a sport as well as a necessity. The domestic cat was introduced in larger numbers whilst wild carnivores like the British lynx were pushed to the abyss of extinction and fell over not long after the Romans left. Wildcats were also prized for their wonderful fur though somehow evaded extinction, learning quickly never to trust mankind. Scotland at the time was ruled by the Picts, an artistic but fearsome race that scared the Romans so much they constructed the 80 mile long Hadrian's Wall and the 40 mile long Antonine Wall to keep them out of the Empire. Picts seem to have worshipped animals and spirits and in the area now called Caithness ("Land of the Cats") lived the Catti tribe; legend states that on first landing in Scotland they were attacked by wildcats which they barely managed to overcome and were so impressed by that the wildcat became their symbol. Thousands of years later the Celts arrived in the form of Clan Sutherland, equally impressed by the wildcats that ensured you couldn't find a rat anywhere in the region (rabbits only arrived after 1066) they also still have a wildcat as their leader's crest. The Sutherland's weren't the only Celts to find inspiration in them either, around Strathspey and the Cairngorms you can find a confederation of clans called Clan Chattan ("Clan Cat") which includes families such as Mackintosh, Macpherson, Macbean and MacGillivray all proudly displaying wildcats in their heraldry.
The Middle Ages (500 years ago)
Chroniclers recorded a still extensive woodland populated with extensive wildcats as recently as the middle ages but changes were on their way; the agricultural and industrial revolutions ate up the forests and began polluting Britain's natural resources whilst numbers of people and the size of towns and cities exploded. In Scotland even the Highlands was no longer safe from modernisation after the failed Jacobite rebellions and forest-devastating industries such as shipbuilding were rapidly growing. Wildcats were still hunted for their fur and also became classed as vermin for their habit of annihilating lamb stocks and chicken coops and an anti wildcat propaganda campaign began that still lurks today. The engraving (right) from 1800 perpetuates the wildcat's almost mythological fierceness; terriers lining up to be swiftly dispatched, probably leaving it up to the mad axeman to apply the coup de grace.
Victorian Britain (100 years ago)
Persecution reached a peak in the Victorian era with the advent of sporting estates where the natural landscape was altered by mass deforestation to create heathland habitats ideal for raising game birds. The wildcats, with other carnivores and raptors, were now literally eating into the estate profits. Gamekeepers were paid a bounty for every wildcat killed, and the total amount killed in a year was used as a yardstick to gauge their ability to do their job. Even 50 years ago keepers would hang wildcat carcasses out on a gibbet to show the landowner that they were doing their job, all the time propagating the myth of the cats destroying stocks of precious gamebirds, whilst today both scientific research and observation have shown that gamebirds make up a marginal portion of their diet; the cats simply prefer rabbit.
Museums of the time paid keepers a bounty for bringing them in the largest specimens to be stuffed and put on display; believed by some to be responsible for the reduced size of todays wildcat. Through the Victorian era the species was gradually eradicated from England and Wales until just a few clung on in the furthest reaches of the Scottish Highlands. Their saving grace unexpectedly came in the form of the First World War. Gamekeepers were called up to fight at the front and few were to return to a very changed economic climate; sporting estates began to break up and the few remaining wildcats had a chance to expand and take hold of their land once again.
By now confined to Scotland the cats were to become known as Felis Sylvestris Grampia or the Scottish wildcat. Defined as a subspecies of the European wildcat due to its larger size, stronger markings and its ability to make use of all the habitats available to it. Myths of man killing wildcats were to persevere, in his 1950's book 'British Wild Animals' naturalist H. Mortimer Batten clearly disliked the animal, citing a Scottish crofter and a shepherd being killed by female wildcats in separate incidents, and describing the best way to trap and kill them, much in line with natural history books in the 1800s talking of wildcats killing armed gamekeepers and such. Some wildcats were even suspected of hanging from branches by a hook at the end of their tails and dropping onto unsuspecting passers by! In the 70's the author Mike Tomkies (pictured right), who spent much of his life living in the Scottish wilderness, came to share his life with a group of wildcats over nearly a decade and wrote several books of his observations and wonderful stories that told of a fearless, honest, intelligent and cautious cat, spectacular in its survival skills, terribly threatened by the actions of man and more than worthy of our respect and protection.
It took many years for Mike's observations to be taken seriously, but by the 1980's scientists were also getting worried about the future of the species, and pressure built to offer them formal protection. In 1988 the Scottish wildcat was protected by law and by 2005 the official line proudly claimed that the population rapidly bounced back to a healthy 5000 individuals across the Highlands.
The new millennium
Unfortunately scientific studies showed that whilst the wildcat had reclaimed the Highlands it couldn't get around the industrial belt formed by Glasgow and Edinburgh, persecution levels were still high on the remaining sporting estates which were almost impossible to police, and the feral domestic cats that had been running around the Highlands for centuries, now in their tens of thousands, were breeding with the wildcats and diluting the genepool towards extinction. Making matters worse a botched court case by SNH against a gamekeeper for shooting three wildcats collapsed when the SNH "expert" couldn't work out if the dead animals were wildcats or not; the population was in tatters and the legal protection joined it as gamekeepers asked how they should identify wildcats when even SNH experts couldn't.
Meanwhile Allan Paul (pictured right) had developed an interest from Mike Tomkies books in helping care for orphaned wildcats; somewhat to his surprise he rapidly became the species studbook keeper inheriting a poorly kept and out of date record of the captive population. Working with Dr Andrew Kitchener at NMS he quickly discovered that of the 50 or so surviving captive wildcats, less than 10 were suitable for breeding and most of them were closely related offspring bred by Allan's own efforts; even the captive population was endangered.
Urgent research began to establish the state of the population, one team with a strong SNH presence resolved that the wildcat was already extinct and most easily left that way, whilst another with a strong presence of interested scientists upgraded its status to still in existence, grossly threatened and urgently in need of help. In 2004 a team of scientists attached to WildCRU and the National Museums of Scotland estimated that 400 wildcats remained, the other 5000 or so being feral domestic cats or hybrid mixes of domestic and wildcat. They went on to put together a detailed study and list of recommendations called the Scottish Wildcat Action Plan. It called for urgent action from SNH and the government in improving legal protection, launching a public awareness campaign, supporting the captive breeding program and creating special reserves for wildcats which would in turn benefit many other species.
In 2006 in the film Last of the Scottish Wildcats SNH admitted publicly for the first time that the figure of 400 pure wildcats was most likely accurate and that they had been slow in responding to the issue; urgent action was required. Scottish wildcats were declared a priority species for conservation in Scotland the same year and a national survey was planned to once again try and ascertain population numbers and distribution; some 3 years on from the Scottish Wildcat Action Plan.
In 2007 the Scottish Wildcat Association began to form to improve public awareness and unite the individual efforts of various interested parties; naturalists, hobbyists, scientists, wildlife photographers, filmmakers, authors, artists, private captive breeders, wildlife parks, clan associations, commercial businesses and private individuals from around the world, all fascinated and devoted to conserving Britain's last wild cat. Allan Paul sadly stepped down from the studbook and captive breeding after seven years of hard work putting the document back into a usable state and running this very website educating the world about the plight of the wildcat. He handed the studbook over to Neville Buck of Howlett's Wildlife Parks in England which has one of the world's most impressive captive breeding programs and specialises in rare cats.
In early 2008 SNH and the Cairngorms National Park Authority put together a meeting of stakeholders designed to move conservation forward in a way acceptable to everyone; various ideas were discussed and arranged to be discussed further. SNH funded Highland Tiger to try and raise awareness around the Cairngorms region and in 2010 the long awaited, heavily edited and ultimately underfunded SNH survey of Scottish wildcats admitted "inconclusive" sightings and another survey began to be planned with Oxford University's WildCRU carrying out a range of studies on survey techniques and potential routes to conservation.
The Scottish Wildcat Association acheived Scottish Charity status in spring 2009 quickly launching public awareness and fundraising campaigns to improve resources in the captive breeding program. Wildcat Haven began to be planned after funding was received from US organisations the Summerlee Foundation and Bosack Kruger Foundation which would extend into 18 months of meetings, surveys and field methodology tests to bring together an action plan using many of the recommendations from the WildCRU/NMS plan of 2004 that could launch immediately before it got too late...
"I think the ways ahead are now very clear. I think the fact that there is a real problem and that it's a priority is now very clear and probably accepted by one and all. I would be optimistic that Scottish Natural Heritage will be very eager to move forward with action on this and I think the time is right. I think further delay would be unnecessary and wasteful and now's the moment to go forwards"
Professor David MacDonald from Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit speaking in 2005.
The Scottish Wildcat Action Plan from WildCRU, Last of the Scottish Wildcats by Coffee Films, Wildcat Haven by Mike Tomkies, numerous articles and studies fished from Google and the original Caring for the Scottish Wildcat website by Allan Paul.
Article picture credits
From top; Miacid by Sally MacLarty (from Cats of Africa ©Struik), Proailurus unknown artist, Felis Lunensis unknown artist, European wildcat unknown photographer, Glaciated Britain by Steve Piper (from Last of the Scottish Wildcats ©Coffee Films), Clan Chattan badge ©Clan Chattan, Scottish wildcat fights terriers unknown artist, Scottish wildcat with black grouse by A. Thorburn, Mike Tomkies by Steve Piper (from Last of the Scottish Wildcats ©Coffee Films), Wildcat/domestic hybrid by Allan Paul, Allan Paul by Steve Piper (from Last of the Scottish Wildcats ©Coffee Films)