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 which until as recently as the 1950s were still believed to be man killers.
Although wildcats look similar to domestic cats, these are no ferals or farm cats run wild; they're Britain's only remaining large wild predator, our only wild cat, and they walked this land for millions of years before mankind arrived or domestic cats existed.
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 are born survivors; adaptable and resilient to some of the most substantial changes in habitat, culture and politics that any animal has had to face.
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 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 fur around the mouth should always be light brown, not white, and any spots in the coat markings typically indicate hybridisation or cross-mating with domestic cats (you can find more on how pure wildcats look on our identification page).
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 dorsal stripe should end at the base of the spine and not continue onto the tail.
The Scottish form is the largest in the wildcat family tyically described as weighing 5-9kg (11-17lbs), however fossil evidence and both modern and historical eye witness sightings suggest they can grow much larger, perhaps to as much as 14kg (30lbs), modern under-estimates may be caused by relying on data from hybridised animals.
The body is a typically feline design; 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 tree branch, land feet first 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 off the rain; the coat is at least 50% thicker than that of a domestic cat.
Unique to Britain, and now only found in Scotland, the Scottish wildcat is currently classified as an isolated island population of the European wildcat (felis silvestris silvestris), though there is still considerable debate over whether it should be classed as a distinct sub-species (felis silvestris grampia).
Like most felines Scottish wildcats are solitary and largely crepuscular creatures; meaning they are 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 over territories which can vary from 1-2km2 up to 40km2 dependent upon prey density and habitat. Males and females come together solely to mate early in the year, for the rest of their lives the cats are alone.
Although physical meetings are rare wildcats do communicate with each other through scent. Territorial boundaries are marked with faeces or spray; these markers are left uncovered in open areas like mounds, roadsides 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. A silent demeanour is essential for hunting and avoiding larger predators so even wildcat kittens will play in complete silence. Wildcats do purr, but never miaow.
Traditionally 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 feels is threatening 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 hissing and spitting. The idea is to give an aggressor just enough pause for thought to create a window of opportunity to escape the situation. If given no other choice and in fear of its life, perhaps cornered or defending kittens, the cat will attack with all its fury, they will fight to the death defending kittens.
The most common victims of non-hunting wildcat attacks tend to be over confident large dogs used to chasing domestic cats, 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 Middle Ages suspicions of cats as agents of witches and maintained through the Victorian era to fuel and justify the persecution of the cats. That said, they can inflict very serious lacerations on aggressors very quickly and almost always force any aggressor into retreat; reliable reports over recent decades have included sightings of wildcats seeing off and seriously injuring golden eagles, German shepherd dogs, packs of terriers and humans.
Their relationship with humans is very simple; they are extremely fearful of man and will do almost anything to avoid us. Recent research suggests that although great effort was made to kill wildcats through the Victorian era very few pure wildcats were actually killed, suggesting they gave even agriculture and grouse moors a fairly wide berth. Wildcats spotted close to human habitation or areas such as the Cairngorms, which to a wildcat is heavily developed, are never pure wildcats, they can only be found in the most remote corners of the Highlands where few people tread and even fewer live.
Diet and hunting
Ecologically the wildcat plays an important role as a controller of small to medium size prey such as rabbits, rats, hare and other small mammals. 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 may provide 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 made 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. Wildcats expend considerable time patrolling their territory so that they are familiar with every inch of it and the emergence of any new food resources. This topographic-style understanding of their environment is also utilised for ambush hunting.
Wildcats show a reduced fear of water compared 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 very minor parts of the wildcat diet.
Wildcats were often blamed for killing lambs and game birds however, as mentioned above, recent research into skins of cats shot on farms and game estates over the last 150 years showed a tiny percentage were true wildcats, suggesting hybrids are happy to claim human food resources but wildcats prefer to avoid us and hunt truly wild food. A hungry cat near the end of a harsh winter will sometimes expand its territory and hunt a wider range of prey; there are many modern tales of chickens and ducks falling victim though this may still be an observation of hybrid behaviour.
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, their peripheral vision is also much better than our own.
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 and they can switch exceptionally quickly from a sleeping state to full alertness as a defence against predators.
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 layout of teeth 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. A gap between the two sets of teeth is sized to fit the spine of typical prey enabling a firm grip of captured quarry. The jaw is also heavily muscled, highly developed and very robust by comparison with domestic cats.
Touch is important for mobility and agility and wildcats 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 arboreal 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, skewed high by observations of hybrids
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
Longevity: Probably around 6 to 8 years in the wild, up to 15 years in captivity
Female Scottish 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' wails. If a male is in the locality the pair come together for a brief mating before parting forever, they do not form classic 'breeding pairs' and even though males of other cat species are known to interact with partners and young (lion, tiger, domestic cat) there is no evidence of wildcats doing so.
Typically three 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 coming into winter. They will usually mate for the first time in their second year.
Wildcats can also cross-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 (fewer than 100 in the latest estimates) means that this is widely accepted as the greatest threat to the future of the Scottish wildcat. Hybrids can be identified precisely genetically, and also generally by coat markings such as large white patches, a slimmer tail and body, a dorsal stripe on the tail or fused and broken up stripes or spots on their body (see identification for more details).
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 and jaguars to be completely black (and commonly called black panthers). Interestingly, Celtic legends include a fairy cat known as the Cait Sith; a large black cat that Highlanders believed was the reincarnation of a witch that only appeared when bad things were about to happen; this mystery creature may well have been a Kellas cat.
Habitat and distribution
Originally a forest creature, Scotland's heavy deforestation and tightly varied habitats has forced the wildcat to evolve behaviour 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. The purest populations appear to exist in the least developed areas of the Highlands in the far north and west, suggestions of pure wildcats surviving in the extensively developed Cairngorms National Park have been confirmed as misidentification.