Identifying a wildcat can be a tricky thing that takes a little practice, and this has been a significant issue with their conservation; imagine the gamekeeper who glimpses a tabby on his grouse moor; is it a feral he needs to protect his grouse from? Or is it a wildcat he could get heavily fined for shooting? This has also been a problem with identifying where wildcats live with almost any tabby coloured cat being fair game to be identified as one, even by 'experts' invariably working with Scottish Natural Heritage.
Below you can find some guidelines to identifying a wildcat, and the differences between them, their domestic cousins, and the hybrid offspring of each, which are the really tricky ones to tell apart.
The most obvious identifier is the tail; the wildcat's magnificent tail is very thick and clublike with big bold distinct rings around it which do not join together at all, in hybrids the dorsal stripe along the spine continues onto the tail, or the bands are misshapen and joining together, in wildcats it always stops at the base of the spine and the bands are perfect. Second are the body markings; pure white patches, spots or broken up, messy stripes are domestic cat features, wildcats have brown fur around the mouth, no white flash on their chest, and tiger-style stripes which can sometimes appear a little spotty on the rump only.
It is important to understand that hybrids and even ferals can sometimes have some perfect features; domestic cats can have a banded tail for example, but it won't be club-like, or a hybrid will have a club-like tail, but the bands will be oddly shaped or partly connected by a dorsal stripe; a cat must have ALL perfect features to be a pure Scottish wildcat.
This video takes you through some of the key things to look out for step by step, it is an extended extract from the film "Last of the Scottish Wildcats" featuring experts Prof David MacDonald and Dr Andrew Kitchener.
Mostly brown with distinctive black tiger-stripe markings
Thick, ruffled coat appearance
Long stripes over body, only slightly broken up on rump
No white patches
Muscular solid body frame
Wavy lines over head and neck
Dorsal stripe ends at base of tail
Very thick tail with a blunt tip
Perfect black rings circle the tail with a large black tip
Jaw large and robust, typically wide head and muzz
Mostly brown with black striped tabby markings
Coat appearance variable
Spotted markings or stripes fused together
White patches on mouth, throat and chest
Variable body frame
Slightly wavy lines over head and neck
Dorsal stripe partly extends onto tail
Thick tail with a blunt or tapering end
Black rings circle the tail joined by dorsal stripe with large black tip
Jaw slimmer and less robust, typically slightly slimmer head and muzz
Variations of brown and black tabby markings
Smooth and sleek coat appearance
Fused stripes and spots
Slim, lithe body frame
Straight lines over head and neck
Dorsal stripe extends all the way down tail
Slim tapering tail
Black half rings join onto a dorsal stripe along the top of the tail
Jaw slim and proportionate, typically slim head and muzz
Norwegian forest cat
The beautiful Norwegian Forest Cat is a naturally evolved domestic breed a little like the Scottish wildcat hybrid is. As you can see they are very large, heavily muscled cats and they have a great love of the outdoors and tree climbing so are often mistaken for wildcats; thanks to Carramazza Cats for the photo!
The following cats have all been placed before the public with allusions that they are pure wildcats by various organisations claiming expertise, they are also all very obvious hybrids and offer good working examples of the above information, showing that often just remembering that wildcats need perfectly banded thick tails and no spots on their body is all you need to remember.
From Wikipedia; white around the mouth, spots on the body, imperfect tail bands and a tapered tail on the kitten make these clearly hybridised cats.
The SNH Highland Tiger project used this one to prove they had discovered hundreds of wildcats in the Cairngorms; the spotty mess on the flank is a very clear sign of hybridisation and subtleties such as the shape of the tail and more spotting on the shoulders further define it as a hybrid.
Another Highland Tiger picture, nice fat tail on this one but still lots of fused stripes and spots all over from domestic genes, and most likely white fur around the mouth.
One from RZSS barely qualifying as a hybrid, the tail is a little thicker and a little more banded than a typical domestic cat but otherwise it's hard to see much wildcat in this at all, the markings are poor, the build is all wrong and the tail bands are almost fused together along the top of the tail.
One of the good ones...
And to finish up a better example, this one is from Oxford WildCRU, the bands on the tail are a little mixed up, and that could be a white mouth which is a little delicately shaped, but largely this cat shows very little hybridisation and is, by appearance, one of the purest cats recorded over the last decade. Great shape to the tail, great stripes over the head and neck, very striped flanks, the dorsal stripe stops dead at the base of the spine; in the short term it is important we protect hybrids such as this in case there are too few pure wildcats to rebuild the population and some hybridisation has to be accepted.