The Scottish Wildcat
The European Wildcat
The African Wildcat, the Ancestor of the Domestic Cat
The wildcat is one of the most impressive and elusive predators in the world; they are intelligent, resourceful, patient, agile and powerful. They are masters of their ecosystem; they need fear no other creature, except perhaps man.
They have survived human persecution, whilst their contemporaries, such as the wolf, lynx and bear succumbed. They inspired and terrified the clans of the Scottish Highlands that resisted the Roman Empire and later the brutal England of Edward I. Today it continues to receive the respect of farmers and gamekeepers, many of them happy to recount the tale of a wildcat mother who gave her life to protect her Kittens by attacking the deadly golden eagle, or stories of wildcats who somehow managed to evade teams of eager and watchful gamekeepers to snatch lambs from their employer’s fields.
The Wildcat looks similar to the Domestic Cat, and are in fact the same species. The domestic cathowever, was domesticated from the African subspecies of Wildcat, which explains why some of the earliest depictions of them can be found on Ancient Egyptian Temples. The wild cat that dwells in the wilder parts of Europe are not feral or farm cats that have turned wild; they're one of Europe’s last surviving wild predators, and the last to survive in the . They have walked across the European landscape land for millions of years before any humans or domestic cats appeared. For me the wildcat sits alongside the wolf as the ultimate symbol of the wild, one can spend a lifetime walking across the Scottish Highlands and count themselves lucky to catch even the briefest glimpse. British Isles
Looks like a Tabby, but it isn't
The wildcat resembles a very muscular domestic tabby; their coat is made up of brown and black stripes with a beautiful black tail made up of black and brown rings. Interestingly, despite being the same species as the domestic cat, they are actually resemble their big cat cousins in terms of their movements. They also have a much larger jaw and brain than their domestic fellows. Like all cats, it’s the males who are the larger of the two sexes, weighing in between 13-17lb and the females 11-15lb, making the Wildcat around 50% larger than your average domestic tabby.
Their body is the closest you could possibly get to perfection in evolution; they possess eighteen amazingly razor sharp claws that retract and rotating wrists that are useful for gripping and holding onto prey and also for climbing trees. They have highly powerful thigh muscles, and have been known to reach running speeds of 30mph, that’s around 6mph faster than Usain Bolt at top speed. Just like their domestic cousins they have the remarkable ability to fall from a considerable height, land on their feet and walk away unhurt; it seems that Wildcats are blessed with nine lives as well. They are capable of exhibiting scarcely believable acts of stealth, balance and agility, despite being wrapped up in a thick coat, which is well camouflaged and kept meticulously clean. The coat is made up of one downy layer to keep in the warm and another outer layer to keep out the rain and cold.
Wildcat in a Tree
Like most other felines, the wildcat is a solitary and nocturnal creature; usually choosing its primary period of activity at dawn and dusk. During daylight hours, they will seek out a safe spot to rest, usually a dense thicket, or underground in a den. In the course of a single night, they can patrol and hunt up to 10 miles through a wide range of habitats. The sole time that males and females come together is to mate in the depths of the winter; the rest of the time they roam alone.
Although face to face meetings are rare, the wildcat frequently communicates with its fellows through scent, as do many other predators. Their territorial boundaries are outlined using feces or spray as markers.; they are usually left uncovered in open areas like mounds or a pathway, so as to ensure that it will carry as far as possible. They also leave scent by rubbing glands in their cheeks and tails against objects, as well as scratching trees with their claws in order to release scent from glands in their feet. This sort behavior is one that most domestic cat owners will recognize. As well as providing information on territorial boundaries the scent also helps other cats to define the scent markers sex, age and overall health; in the case of a female, the scent will also let male cats know if they are ready to mate. Vocalization is extremely rare, saved only for displays of aggression and also for on heat females who wail loudly to attract male attention. The reason why vocalization is rare is because the cat is an ambush predator, thus meaning that silence is of paramount importance to them. It’s important for the Cat to acquire this skill early in its life, as larger predators are not averse to predating wildcat kittens, so unlike many mammals they play in almost total silence.
The wildcat is often portrayed as a ferocious and terrifying beast that is to be universally feared and hated. But the fact of the matter is that wildcats simply enjoy their personal space and above all else, peace. They will only attack when hunting, or when it feels it’s being hunted itself. When they are under threat, their strategy is to turn on the aggressor hissing, growling and spitting furiously; similar to a domestic cat. But interestingly the wildcat will mock charge you in the same way that a lion might do, rather than adopt a side on stance to try to look big, as the domestic cat does. The cat does not really want to draw itself into a full blown fight, but rather sow the seeds of doubt in your mind, giving them a chance to escape. However, if given no other alternative, for example if it feels its life or the life of its kittens is in danger, they will attack with all the fury you’d expect from a lion or tiger. When a wildcat is attacked, it’s usually an overconfident large dog that is used to chasing its more benign domestic cousin and refuses to back down or a zoo Keeper or vet that needs to tranquilize an individual for medical reasons, captive animals need to be tranquilized, as they can bite through gauntlets and gloves. The European wildcat, is one of the few wild creatures that cannot be tamed even if bred in captivity.
A Wildcat after a spot of Fishing
Diet and Hunting
The wildcat plays an important role as a controller of small to medium size prey, and even today is a friend to farmers as an excellent controller of pest species such as rabbits. Unlike larger predators such as the wolf or fox, they eat meat and nothing else, consuming almost every part of any kill they make; the coat provides roughage, the bones calcium and the meat everything else. Their desired prey is rabbit and when they are unavailable, they turn to rodents and other small mammals, to ensure that they always have a constant staple food source. Their diet of pure meat means that they commonly suffer from parasitic worms, and so take to eating long blades of grass, which help to remove some of the worms from their system; it’s a behavior they share not only with other cats but also dogs. It is thought that the grass provides them with essential folic acid, which helps to dislodge the worms from their digestive system.
They use a wide range of different strategies to hunt, combining stealth, speed and power, utilizing all of their senses to track down and find suitable prey. Also at their disposal is their black and brown coat, which helps them to easily camouflage into the background, they show an extraordinary level of patience and concentration to stalk as close as possible before bursting into a full blown sprint to make the final kill. They use their claws to grab and pull down running prey, the killer blow is usually a bite to the back of the neck or throat which helps to bring the prey down quickly and cut down the risk of injury, particularly when dealing with larger prey. Their territory usually covers a few square miles, and they know every inch of ground, so they will utilize favored spots to execute ambush hunts, at certain of times of the day when they know that their prey are due to walk past.
Unlike domestic cats, but similar to tigers, they show little fear of water, and it has been observed that they do try and catch fish on occasion. They do not pounce or dive in, instead they will dip their paws into shallow pools to try and scoop small fish just as a kitten scoops a ball into the air over its head then turns and pounces onto it; whilst it looks fun to us, it’s a very important part of the cat’s instinct, most mammals learn vital skills during play as youngsters. They also consume lizards, eels and frogs, but these are unusual and relatively minor parts of their diet.
The wildcat has been known to attack livestock, mostly lambs, but this is less common today, as it seems the cats have learnt from the mistakes of their predecessors. Farmers and gamekeepers alike mercilessly slaughtered any animal thought to be responsible for killing any livestock. Thankfully, in the modern era, most farmers are very proud of having a wildcat sharing land with them. As well as rabbits and small mammals, they will also take hares, if they can catch them, as well as young or small species of deer and also ground nesting birds, they will also take other species of wild bird, but only when other food is scarce, because birds in general have very little meat on them and take considerable effort to catch.
A video profiling the conservation of the Wildcat
A Map showing the Distribution of the various subspecies of Wildcat
Habitat and Distribution
The wildcat was originally a creature of the forest, but significant deforestation across its range has forced them to exploit different habitats, this is rather unusual behavior in cats, as most stick to just one habitat. In that sense, wildcat’s are similar to leopards who can also live in a variety of habitats and environments.
They were once found right across Eurasia and North Africa, but gradually over the millennia, their range has contracted as Humanity’s has expanded. Today they are found in isolated pockets across Eurasia, including Turkey, the Caucasus, the wilder parts of Eastern Europe and Scotland. The African wildcat, the direct ancestor of the domestic cat can still be found in North Africa, although its existence as a pure species is under threat from interbreeding with domestic cats, as is the existence of the wildcat in general.
A Wildcat Mother and her Kitten
Wildcat Mother and Kittens in the Highlands Wildlife Park
The wildcat mating season lasts from January to March; the females will seek out males by wailing and meowing, as well as scent marking. She comes into heat for about a week, and upon an encounter with a male, they will mate briefly and then part ways forever. Her pregnancy lasts around two months, meaning that most Kittens are born in April and May, the best time to take advantage of the abundance of young rabbits. The mother, gives birth to usually 3 or 4 kittens. Initially they are confined to the den, surviving on mother’s milk, but within a few weeks, she’s able to leave them for a short while to bring kills back to the den. Soon after that, the kittens are old and strong enough to leave the confines of the den and explore the wider world; at this point the mother will bring back live prey to teach the kittens the art of hunting and killing. Within a few months, they join her on the hunt to further observe and enhance their skills, before striking out on their own at the age of 5 or 6 months. They usually mate for the first time when they reach their second year, but almost from day one the odds are stacked against them, on average out of a litter of four, only two will survive to adulthood, and even as adult they are not safe. In Scotland, as many as 92% of all deaths recorded were caused by humans in some capacity, whether it be snares, gun shots or road kill. But if a wildcat can survive all of those hazards, as well as avoiding domestic cats, they can live for up to 10 years in the wild.
- Rewilding in the UK
Should predators and other large mammals be brought back to the UK,a place they once called home?
- Highland Tiger : The Scottish Wildcat
Highland Tiger is a project developed by the Wild Media Foundation to educate and raise awareness about the Scottish Wildcat
- Wildwood Trust
A Charity committed to conserving rare species and reintroducing lost species, including the Wildcat.
- Scottish Wildcat Association, conserving Scotland\'s critically endangered wild felines
Scottish Wildcat Association website, working to protect and conserve the Scottish wildcat, it's key habitats and prey.
© 2012 James Kenny