Scottish Wildcats - Powerful Hunters and Endangered Animals

A European wildcat, which belongs to the same species as the Scottish wildcat and is sometimes classified in the same subspecies as well
A European wildcat, which belongs to the same species as the Scottish wildcat and is sometimes classified in the same subspecies as well | Source

The Scottish Wildcat

The Scottish wildcat is an impressive animal. It's a muscular and powerful hunter with excellent vision and hearing. It uses its sharp, retractable claws to trap its prey, which is killed with a bite to the neck. Scottish wildcats are solitary and territorial animals. They have long been a symbol for the beautiful, wild and untamed areas of Scotland. Unfortunately, they are critically endangered.

A Scottish wildcat looks somewhat like a domestic tabby cat. Its dense coat is brown or greyish brown in color and has black stripes. However, the wildcat is definitely not a domestic cat. It has neither the temperament nor the appearance of a pet. It's generally larger than a housecat and has a heavier build. It also has a thick, bushy tail with distinct black rings and a black, blunt tip. A domestic tabby cat has a tapered tail with a pointed tip. The wildcat does hybridize with domestic cats, however. This hybridization is becoming a serious problem for its survival.

The Scottish Highlands - Home of the Wildcat

Scottish Highlands and Lowlands
Scottish Highlands and Lowlands | Source

"The Scottish Highlands" is the term for a mountainous and sparsely populated area in northern Scotland. The area has a rich history. It also contains Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles at 4,409 feet (1,344 metres) above sea level.

Wildcat Distribution

Wildcats have a widespread distribution in Europe, Asia and Africa. They are all classified in the same species. The population as a whole isn’t considered to be endangered by conservation organizations. However, a big threat to the wildcat's survival as a distinct animal is the hybridization with domestic cats. This is very common in some parts of its range, including Scotland. The population estimate for non-hybrid wildcats in Scotland ranges from a few hundred individuals to as few as thirty-five. Scottish wildcats are considered to be critically endangered and are heading for extinction.

Kendra is a female Scottish wildcat (or more likely a hybrid due to the spots on her side) at the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey, England. In this photo she is with one of her kittens.
Kendra is a female Scottish wildcat (or more likely a hybrid due to the spots on her side) at the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey, England. In this photo she is with one of her kittens. | Source

Classification Problems - What are Scottish Wildcats?

The scientific name of the wildcat is Felis silvestris. There are generally considered to be five subspecies - the European, African, Southern African, Asiatic and Chinese Alpine Steppe wildcats. This classification system is controversial, though. There is considerable variation in wildcat appearance throughout its range. Some people think that the Scottish wildcat should be classified in its own subspecies instead of with the European wildcat.

The European wildcat is classified as Felis silvestris silvestris. (Felis is the genus, the first silvestris is the species and the second silvestris is the subspecies.) The Scottish wildcat is sometimes classified as Felis silvestris grampia, distinguishing it from its European ancestor. The domestic cat, which is thought to have developed from the African wildcat, is classified as Felis catus, or sometimes as Felis silvestris catus. Scientists who use the latter scientific name consider the domestic cat to be a subspecies of the wildcat.

Distribution of the Five Subspecies of Wildcats

The light purple color represents places where Felis sylvester sylvestris once existed but is now extinct while the black patches show where it still survives. Some people feel that the subspecies in Scotland should be named Felis sylvestris grampia.
The light purple color represents places where Felis sylvester sylvestris once existed but is now extinct while the black patches show where it still survives. Some people feel that the subspecies in Scotland should be named Felis sylvestris grampia. | Source

Problems with Population Counts

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation for Nature) classifies the wildcat population in its “Least Concern” category for conservation purposes. However, it says that if only non-hybrid wildcats were considered in the population count the results might be very different. Another problem with assessing the status of the population is that sometimes feral domestic cats are mistakenly identified as wildcats. This may produce inflated population numbers for the wildcat.

Scottish Wildcat Documentary Preview

The Scottish wildcat is sometimes known as the Highland Tiger, a name that reflects both its habitat and its ferocity.

Appearance and Anatomy of a Scottish Wildcat

The Scottish wildcat is a fierce animal that is said to be untameable, even when it's born and brought up in captivity. It's also the largest and heaviest of all the wildcats. Males may reach as much as seventeen pounds in weight, although the average is a few pounds less. Females weigh less than males. There have been suggestions that these values are underestimates and are skewed by the existence of hybrids, however.

Scottish wildcats have thicker coats than the average domestic cat. The coat may appear ruffled due to its thickness. In addition, wildcats are more muscular than domestic cats. They also have larger skulls, longer leg bones and shorter intestines. Their face and jaws tend to look wider than those of domestic cats. Wildcats have a thick and beautiful tail with separate black bands and a blunt tip.

Coat Differences Between Wildcats, Hybrids and Feral Cats

The Coat of a Scottish Wildcat

There has been much debate over what features make an animal a Scottish wildcat. Researchers have decided that seven coat features distinguish wildcats from hybrids and domestic cats, as described in the video above. A cat needs to have all of these coat features in order to be classified as a wildcat.

Some researchers say that many "wildcats" in captivity are actually hybrids. In fact, captive hybrids may be so common that our only choice may be to breed the least hybridized cats if we want to create a population that resembles a wildcat population.

A Scottish Wildcat Filmed by a Hidden Camera

Wildcat Lives

Scottish wildcats are usually nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dawn or dusk), although they may be seen during the day. They live in a wide variety of habitats, including forested areas, scrubland and moors. They are sometimes seen on pastureland, too. Their original habitat is believed to have been the forest.

A male's territory may overlap the territory of one or more females. The cats mark their territories with urine, feces and secretions from scent glands. Wildcats aren't very vocal, but they do make sounds during aggression and mating. Wildcats can purr but they can't meow.

The cats spend most of the day hidden in dense trees or bushes or in a den. At dusk, or sometimes during the day, they emerge to feed. Wildcats usually hunt with stealth but are capable of great bursts of speed. They are carnivorous and feed chiefly on rodents and other mammals, including rabbits, hares, mice and voles, but they also catch birds, frogs, lizards and fish. They dip their paws into water to scoop out the fish. The cats eat nearly every part of their catch, including the fur, feathers and bones. The prey is eaten immediately or buried for future use.

A beautiful Scottish wildcat
A beautiful Scottish wildcat | Source

Scottish wildcats are fierce predators and will protect themselves and their kittens if they feel threatened. The cats were said to be man killers until this claim was disproved in the 1950s.

Reproduction

Scottish wildcats mate in February or March. After a gestation period of around sixty-five days, the female produces two to four kittens (on average) in a den. The den is either freshly made or is inherited from another animal.

The male seems to play no role in rearing the youngsters. When the kittens are ready to eat solid food, their mother brings them live prey. The kittens leave home and look for their own territories at between five and six months of age. In the wild, wildcats live for about six to eight years. In captivity they live for about fifteen years.

Scottish Wildcat Conservation Project

Scottish Wildcats in Trouble

Human persecution has played a large role in the decrease in the wildcat population. In the past, Scottish wildcats were often considered to be pests by gamekeepers and farmers and were killed. Persecution, habitat destruction and being hunted for their fur resulted in the elimination of wildcats from England and Wales in the 1800s.

Scottish wildcats are now protected animals. Hybridization has become a big problem, however. The mating of wildcats with domestic cats isn't a new process and has been taking place for a long time, but as the domestic cat population has increased so has the cross breeding. The hybrids are fertile and can produce a new generation of cats. Diseases transferred from domestic cats have also played a role in reducing wildcat numbers. In addition, sometimes wildcats reach roads and are killed by cars.

Captive Breeding

Why Does Hybridization Matter?

Some people wonder why we need to worry about whether a cat seen in the wild areas of Scotland is a wildcat, a hybrid or a feral domestic cat. The Scottish wildcat is a protected animal, so it's beneficial for an animal to be classified as a wildcat. In addition, Scottish wildcats are genetically different from domestic cats. At the moment the wildcat gene pool is being diluted. The animal's distinct genes are disappearing from the population and being replaced by domestic cat genes as hybridization occurs in generation after generation. We are losing diversity from the Earth.

Hybridization doesn’t sound as dramatic as a species disappearing due to overhunting or habitat loss (although suitable habitat for the Scottish wildcat is disappearing), but the end result as far as the species or subspecies is concerned is the same - extinction.

Wildcat Kittens in Captivity

Hybridization is not the Scottish wildcat's only problem. Even in the Scottish Highlands, suitable habitat for the cats is shrinking due to deforestation. The animals are in danger of disappearing from their last stronghold in Britain.

Conservation Efforts

Conservation efforts for wildcats include a captive breeding program with (hopefully) non-hybrid animals, captive breeding-for-release programs and education programs to encourage cat owners to neuter and vaccinate their pets. In addition, feral cats are being trapped, neutered and released.

Conservation organizations are trying to publicize the plight of the wildcat. The general public is being encouraged to help with wildcat surveys, take photographs and make notes about any wildcats that they see. The cats are elusive animals, so all encounters are important for collecting information. Farmers are being asked to control predation on their animals in a way that doesn't hurt wildcats.

Edinburgh Zoo has organized a project to collect and analyze genetic information about Scottish wildcats, which should be helpful in saving the animals. One researcher has even suggested that wildcats should be cloned.

Sanctuary Locations for Wildcats

show route and directions
A markerArdnamurchan peninsula, Scotland -
Ardnamurchan, Acharacle, Highland PH36, UK
[get directions]

B markerMorvern, Scotland -
Morvern, Oban, Highland PA34, UK
[get directions]

A Scottish Wildcat Sanctuary

In 2014 a Scottish wildcat sanctuary was established on the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. This peninsula has a low human population. Domestic cats in the area were neutered to prevent interbreeding. The sanctuary has an area of 250 square miles and sounds like a good place to protect wildcats.

In February 2015, it was announced that the size of the Scottish wildcat sanctuary is to be doubled, eventually reaching an area of 500 square miles. The sanctuary will expand into the Morvern penisula.

Hopefully the efforts being made to ensure the survival of the Scottish wildcat will be successful. It would be a great shame to lose this beautiful animal from the Earth.

© 2012 Linda Crampton

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Comments 32 comments

Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 4 years ago from North Carolina

Great hub with the Scottish Wildcats Alicia. This is the kind of animal hub that's extra interesting for me. The vids are good with how to tell the difference and all. Its good timing too cause for the last couple months have taken in a feral wild cat that looks a lot like the Scottish one. Only real difference is the tail. The ones the Scotch cats have looks like a raccoons.


Kris Heeter profile image

Kris Heeter 4 years ago from Indiana

Beautiful looking cat! Thanks for this educational hub. It's wonderful to hear that there are conservation efforts going on.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Alastar. Thanks for the comment. Yes, the Scottish wildcat's tail does look like a raccoon's! I hope all goes well with your feral cat. It's great that he or she has a new home.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, Kris. I'm happy that conservation efforts are being made, too. I hope they're successful!


drbj profile image

drbj 4 years ago from south Florida

In the video, Alicia, the Scottish wildcat looks and moves much like a miniature tiger. Very sinuous and beautiful. Thank you for this very interesting hub about a little known creature, even though it may eat the fur, feathers and bones of its prey. Ugh!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Yes, drbj, I can see why the alternate name for the Scottish wildcat is the Highland tiger! I love your description of its movement - "sinous" is a great term. It's sad, but I've sometimes seen this wildcat referred to as a "forgotten" animal (which it may be, at least as far as the general public is concerned). The Scottish wildcat mustn't be forgotten if it's going to survive. Thank you very much for the comment.


writer20 profile image

writer20 4 years ago from Southern Nevada

The wild cat is beautiful. Thanks for sharing this one. voted up and interesting, Joyce.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, Joyce. I appreciate your comment and the votes.


Maren Morgan M-T profile image

Maren Morgan M-T 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

VU...great info. Very handsome animals!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks, Maren Morgan. I agree, these wildcats are handsome animals. I hope very much that they survive as a subspecies.


Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 4 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

You know...I'd never heard of this cat until I wrote my hub on the bobcat, and a guy in Scotland told me about them.

Turns out...they're the most endangered animal in the U.K.!!!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Wesman. Yes, I've read that the Scottish wildcat is either the most endangered mammal in the United Kingdom or one of the most endangered mammals. It's a sad situation, which I hope can be rectified. Thank you very much for the comment.


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

I loved this one;I knew a little on these cats but now Know so much more.

You are a great teacher and I enjoyed the lesson.

Thank you so much and here's to many many more to share.

Take care and I wish you a wonderful weekend.

Eddy.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, Eddy. I hope that you have a wonderful weekend too!


Brett Winn profile image

Brett Winn 4 years ago from US

What a beautiful animal!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Brett. It's nice to meet you! Yes, Scottish wildcats are beautiful animals. I hope they don't disappear from the world.


Becky Katz profile image

Becky Katz 4 years ago from Hereford, AZ

This is so interesting. I am fascinated by these small wildcats. I used to have a wildcat come visit on my front porch at night. It liked to lick the grill after we barbequed. I would flip the light on and it would be gone, running back into the woods. I hope these manage to make it through and do not go extinct. Good hub.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the visit, Becky. I hope that Scottish wildcats don't become extinct, too. Hopefully the efforts being made by conservationists will be successful.


StellaSee profile image

StellaSee 4 years ago from California

Hi Alicia! I agree with the others here, what a gorgeous cat! As for conservation efforts, are they easy to breed in captivity?


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, StellaSee. Thanks for the visit! Breeding Scottish wildcats in captivity does seem to be successful if the cats are given a good environment to live in, which breeders are trying hard to create. The biggest problem seems to be ensuring that the mated pair are both non-hybrids.


MikeSyrSutton profile image

MikeSyrSutton 4 years ago from An uncharted galaxy

That was a fun read. Never heard of this species! Voted up.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for commenting and for the vote, Mike. I appreciate your visit.


JKenny profile image

JKenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

I really enjoyed reading this article, very informative. I was lucky enough to see a Scottish Wildcat, albeit in captivity. I hope that they can continue their wild existence for as long as possible.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the visit and the comment, JKenny. You were lucky to see a Scottish wildcat. I would love to observe one in the wild. That would be so interesting!


StellaSee profile image

StellaSee 4 years ago from California

Continuing with the last post, does that mean there aren't many genetically pure Scottish wildcats anymore? :)


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Yes, StellaSee, there are believed to be fewer than four hundred non-hybrid Scottish wildcats in existence. The other wildcats in Scotland have a mixture of wildcat genes and domestic cat genes.


declan 4 years ago

i love wildcats and i am doing a project about them.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

I love wildcats too, declan! They are very interesting animals.


jantamaya profile image

jantamaya 2 years ago from UK

I love Scotland. I love cats. I must love Scottish Wildecats - "felis sylvestris grampia" too! Thanks for writing this interesting stuff.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, jantamaya! I appreciate your visit and comment.


aesta1 profile image

aesta1 18 months ago from Ontario, Canada

I don't think I have ever seen one of these but at least now, I know something of them.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 18 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, aesta1. It's nice to hear from you. Thanks for the comment.

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