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Scottish Wildcats: Powerful Hunters and Endangered Animals
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 colour 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
"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.
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.
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 animal.
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
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 animals 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 wild animal.
Scottish Wildcat Documentary Preview
The Scottish wildcat is sometimes known as the Highland Tiger, a name that reflects both its habitat and its ferocity.
Physical Appearance and Anatomy
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
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 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
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. They 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. Their diet includes rabbits, hares, mice, and voles. They also catch birds, frogs, lizards, and fish. They dip their paws into water to scoop out the fish. The animals eat nearly every part of their catch, including the fur, feathers, and bones. The prey is eaten immediately or buried for future use.
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.
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
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 the animals 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 the animals reach roads and are killed by cars.
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, wildcats are genetically different from domestic cats. At the moment the gene pool of the wild animal 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 for wildcats include a captive breeding program involving (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 animal 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
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