The Scottish Wildcat
(felis silvestris grampia)
Description | Conservation | History | Breeding program | Identification
Meet the neighbours
Pound for pound the Scottish wildcat is one of the most impressive predators in the world; intelligent, fearless, resourceful, patient, agile and powerful they are genuine superpredators and until as recently as the 1950s were believed to be man killers.
Surviving human persecution for five hundred more years than the British wolf and over a thousand more years than the British lynx or bear, they inspired and terrified the same Highland clans that defied the Roman and English empires. Today the wildcat continues to receive the respect of Highland farmers and gamekeepers, many of them happy to recount the tale of the wildcat mother killing herself to kill a golden eagle attacking her kittens, or stories from childhood of wildcats evading teams of watching keepers to snatch lambs from their father's fields.
Although wildcats look similar to domestic cats, these are no feral or farm cats run wild; they're Britain's only remaining large wild predator and have walked this land for millions of years before mankind arrived or domestic cats appeared. Every inch a cat in every sense of the word the Scottish wildcat epitomises the independent, mysterious and wild spirit of the Highlands like no other creature.
"They'll fight to the death for their freedom; they epitomise what it takes to be truly free I think."
By appearance the Scottish wildcat resembles a very muscular domestic tabby, the coat is made up of well defined brown and black stripes and usually has a ruffled appearance due to its thickness. The gait is more like that of a big cat and the face and jaw are wider and more heavy set than the domestic cat. Most apparent is the beautiful tail; thick and ringed with perfect bands of black and brown ending in a blunt black tip. The Scottish form is the largest in the wildcat family with males typically between 6-9kg (13-17lb) and females 5-7kg (11-15lb), around 50% larger than the average domestic cat. Fossil examples measuring 4 feet from nose to tail have been found; such a cat could have weighed around 14kg (30lb).
Their body is an evolutionary perfection; eighteen razor sharp retractable claws and rotating wrists for gripping prey and climbing trees, immensely powerful thigh muscles for 30mph sprinting, the ability to fall from the highest pine tree, land on its feet and walk away unscathed, incredible stealth, balance and agility all wrapped in a thick, camoflaged and religiously cleaned coat with one downy layer to keep in the warm and another outer layer to keep out the rain and cold.
Unique to Britain, and now only found in Scotland, they are a sub species of the European wildcat (felis silvestris silvestris) and although similar to the European the Scottish is slightly larger with a thicker coat, more heavily camoflaged and hunts and lives across a wider range of habitats; it is also infamously known as the only wild animal that can never be tamed by human hand, even when captive reared.
Like most felines Scottish wildcats are solitary and largely nocturnal creatures; thought to be most active at dawn and dusk when hunting or marking territory they rest up in hidden thickets, dens or forests by day and patrol and hunt up to 10km through a range of habitats populated by prey overnight. Males and females come together solely to mate in mid-winter and for the rest of their lives the cats are alone.
Although physical meetings are rare wildcats regularly communicate with each other through scent. Territorial boundaries are marked with faeces or spray; these markers are left uncovered in open areas like mounds or pathways where the scent will carry as far as possible, advertising the presence of a boundary to other cats; bodily waste within the territory is usually covered. Wildcats also leave scent by rubbing glands in their cheeks and tail against objects, or by clawing trees to release scent from glands in their feet; behaviour most domestic cat owners will recognise. Besides marking boundaries the scents also relay other information about sex, age and health; female scents will also let male cats know if they're ready to mate. Vocal communication is extremely rare, saved for displays of aggression or, whilst in heat, females wail loudly to attract male attention and are quite possibly the root of many Highland tales about screaming banshees. A silent demeanour is essential for hunting and avoiding larger predators so even wildcat kittens will play in complete silence.
Although classically portrayed as a ferocious and terrifying beast to be feared and hated, wildcats simply enjoy their personal space, daily schedule and peace. A wildcat will only attack something it's hunting, or something that it feel is hunting it. When threatened their classic strategy is to turn on an aggressor hissing, growling and spitting furiously; just like a domestic cat their hackles raise and the back arches but rather than turn side on to try and look big, they mock charge like a big cat; stamping forwards at you hissing and spitting. The idea is to give you just enough doubt to give them an opportunity to escape. If given no other choice and in fear of its life, perhaps cornered or defending kittens, the cat will attack with all its fury.
The most common victims of wildcat attacks tend to be over confident large dogs used to chasing domestic cats and unprepared to back down, or wildlife park keepers trying to get hold of a wildcat for veterinary inspection; some vets opt to use a tranquilising blowdart as wildcats are well documented for biting clean through gauntlets and hands. Legends of cats hanging from tree branches by a hook at the end of their tail, dropping onto passing crofters and tearing out their throats are the stuff of fantasy, left over from the Middle Ages' suspicion of cats as agents of witches and maintained through the Victorian era to fuel and justify the persecution of the cats.
Diet and Hunting
Ecologically the wildcat plays an improtant role as a predator and controller of small to medium size prey, and even today is a friend to crop farmers as an excellent controller of alien pest species such as rabbits. They are pure carnivores and eat only meat, consuming almost every part of any kill they make; the coat providing roughage, the bones calcium and the meat everything else. Their favoured prey is rabbit and where rabbit is unavailable rodents and small mammals provide the staple food source. This pure meat diet means that parasitic worms are a common problem and wildcats eat long blades of grass which help dislodge and remove some of the worms from their system, it is also thought that the grass provides essential folic acid to their system.
They use a variety of strategies to hunt similar to most cats with stealth, speed and power being the key ingredients. Utilising all their senses to track and find suitable prey the hunting cat will then utilise its camoflage and patience to stalk as close as possible before a full speed sprint, catch and kill. Claws are used to grab and pull down running prey whilst the kill is usually by a bite to the neck breaking the spine or crushing the spinal cord. Sometimes a bite to the throat causing suffocation is used with larger prey. Territories usually cover a few square miles and the resident wildcat will know every inch, so ambush hunting is also often used at places in the territory where prey can be reliably expected at certain times of day; cats are exceptional timekeepers.
Wildcats show a reduced fear of water to domestic cats and are suggested to occasionally fish; rather than diving in like the specialised Fishing Cat, they dip their paws into shallow burns or loch edges to try and scoop out passing fish just as a kitten scoops a ball into the air over its head then turns and pounces onto it; whilst very fun it's also instinct teaching the kitten how to fish. Lizards, eels and frogs are other unusual and minor parts of the wildcat diet.
Undeniably lambs can be in some trouble during season though the historical response of killing the guilty cat seems to have taught the modern form to leave livestock off the menu, today most farmers are very proud of having a wildcat sharing territory with them. Mountain hare are an occasional if challenging catch and the wildcat is known apocryphally to hunt young and small species of deer successfully. Ground nesting birds do present an easy target however they make up a small percentage of the total diet; the captive population will only eat game bird if it's clear absolutely nothing else is going to be forthcoming suggesting they simply aren't too excited by the taste. Other birds are hunted randomly and only opportunistically; for a wildcat most birds offer a very small meal for considerable effort.
Daylight vision is in part-colour and good compared to most animals, night vision is exceptional and around seven times better than our own; whether perception is in colour is currently unknown. Their eyes are tuned primarily to see movement so that they are able to detect and focus on the tiniest movements of prey in dense cover.
All cats have truly exceptional hearing with each ear capable of independent rotation through 180 degrees, allowing full surround coverage. The brain is able to triangulate the source of any given nearby noise allowing the cat to pinpoint prey in dense cover without needing to see it. The range of tones they can hear and their ability to differentiate between minute differences in tone is far in excess of human or canine ability, and used to detect and identify high pitched squeaks of small prey species. Their hearing sense is active 24 hours a day even when sleeping.
Felines are the World's most dedicated carnivores needing only meat to stay in perfect health, even their primary water supply is in their meat intake. As a result all cats have a very meat oriented taste system with very little ability to detect sweet flavours. The teeth layout is also highly specialised; the front portion perfect for delivering an instant kill bite to the spine or throat, whilst the rear teeth perfectly cross over each other like scissors to sheer through the meat when feeding; the jaw is also heavily muscled, highly developed and very robust by comparison with domestic cats.
Touch is important for mobility and agility and cats have a highly developed sense of balance remaining from their tree dwelling evolutionary ancestors. The chamber in their brain used like a spirit level to locate themselves physically is far more advanced than in humans, undoubtedly to deal with the complex 3-dimensional lifestyle of tree dwelling predators. Their acute touch sense can also detect minute ground vibrations caused by prey through their paw pads, or minute changes in air currents with their delicate whiskers and a number of other specialised sensory hairs around their body.
Smell is an underdeveloped sense but still well in excess of human ability, it is used to scent prey or carrion during winter, but probably equally as often when reading communication scents left by other cats, or checking it's own boundaries.
Biology and Reproduction
Mating season: January to March, most births in April to May
Oestrus: 2 to 8 days, in presence of males
Gestation: 63 to 68 days
Litter size: Mean 3.4, range 1 to 8
Age at independence: 4 to 5 months, up to 10 months
Age at sexual maturity: Females 10 to 12 months, males 9 to 10 months
Interbirth interval: one year, females can only exceptionally breed twice in one year, such as when the first litter is lost
Mortality: Studies suggest human caused mortality (snares, roads, gunshot) account for up to 92% of deaths
Longevity: Probably around 6 to 8 years in the wild, up to 15 years in captivity
Female wildcats come into heat once a year for a short period in January or February and advertise their readiness for mating through scent marking and night-time "caterwauling" miaows and wails. If a male is in the locality the pair come together for a brief mating before parting forever.
Three or four Kittens are born in early spring and raised solely by the mother who is exceptional in her care and defence of them as they grow. Surviving initially on the mother's milk the kittens quickly progress to eating kills brought to the den for them. Within weeks the mother will bring back live prey for the kittens to catch for themselves, teaching them hunting skills, and within a few months they join her on the hunt to observe and learn survival skills before heading out independently around 5 or 6 months of age. They will usually mate for the first time in their second year.
Wildcats can also mate with domestic cats creating fertile "hybrid" offspring, the commonality of domestic cats (at least 100,000 feral cats are thought to live in the Highlands) by comparison with the rarity of wildcats means that this is likely to be the greatest threat to the wildcat's future. Hybrids can be identified precisely genetically, and also generally by coat markings such as large white patches, a slimmer tail and body or fused and broken up stripes on the flanks.
Some hybrids are pure black in colour and have become known as Kellas cats after the village in the Highlands where they were discovered in modern times. At first considered a new species research showed them to be hybrids, though one of the cats studied appeared to be the first recorded melanistic wildcat; the same process that causes some leopards to be completely black (and commonly known as black panthers). Interestingly, Celtic legends include a fairy cat known as the Cait Sith; a large black beast that Highlanders believed was the reincarnation of a witch that only appeared when bad things were about to happen!
Habitat and Distribution
Originally a forest creature, Scotland's heavy deforestation and tightly varied habitats has forced the wildcat to evolve and utilise everything available to it, with individuals typically including a mixture of habitats in their territory (see image above); an unusual behaviour in felines who tend to specialise in a single habitat.
Once found across the British mainland they are now confined to the Scottish Highlands. Eye witness sightings of cats in the Borders region and even Northern England are not complete impossibilities but any cats in those areas are likely to be heavily hybridised. Locations of the best populations is slowly coming into focus and unsurprisingly it seems that they primarily exist in the less developed areas of the Highlands in the far north and west. Recent sightings can be recorded and viewed on our sightings page.