The Scottish Wildcat
The Scottish wildcat evolved from a population of European wildcats which became isolated by the English Channel over 9000 years ago. They are the largest of the wildcat family and can be double the size of a domestic pet cat and infinitely more ferocious.
The fur of the Scottish wildcat is a great deal thicker than that of a domestic cat.
It displays very distinctive solid black and brown stripes. Spots, broken stripes or white fur are all indications of hybridisation (cross-mating) with domestic cats.
Another notable feature is their thick banded tail, perfectly ringed with no dorsal stripe running off of the spine. Imperfect rings or dorsal markings are further signs of hybridisation.
Like all cats they have superb hearing, retractable claws, exceptional night vision and a powerful body conducive to sprinting and pouncing.
Scottish wildcats epitomise the solitary, independent super-predator and the mysterious and wild spirit of the Highlands in a way that no other animal can.
How big is the Scottish Wildcat?
This is very difficult to answer. The size of a Scottish wildcat is another thing that has been confused by hybridisation.
Most sources state that wildcats are up to 50% larger than a domestic cat. Given that domestic cats vary in size a great deal, this description is of limited value.
It adds further difficulty to the answer when you consider that these observations have been made by people observing hybrids which were mistaken as wildcats. These hybrids were observed in captivity, or were actually European wildcats.
European wildcats have been consistently described as slightly smaller animal. This makes sense, as they live in warmer climates and would have less need for body mass such as fat to keep warm).
Thankfully, there is some useful information in the history books. Victorians dug up a wildcat skeleton that measured 4 feet from nose to tail tip. The following statement appears in A General History of Quadrupeds by Thomas Bewick in 1790;
“Some Wild Cats have been taken in this kingdom of a most enormous size. We recollect one having been killed in the county of Cumberland, which measured, from nose to the end of its tail, upwards of five feet”
It seems likely that the true wildcat is a far more substantial animal than we’ve given it credit for over the years. One eye witness sighting collected by the SWA in 2008 reinforces this idea
Eye Witness Report
The eye witness reported that a German shepherd dog chased and cornered a wildcat only for the cat to launch a retaliatory attack. The unfortunate dog didn’t do all that well, getting a considerable quantity of it’s face torn off and a hefty vet bill.
The dog owner insisted the wildcat’s paws were virtually the same size as the dog’s and that the cat itself was far larger than they expected a wildcat to be. The description of markings, banded tail etc. made it clear it couldn’t be one of the UK’s famed “alien big cats”.
So one of the simplest questions about wildcats has one of the most difficult answers.
It seems quite possible that the wildcat we’re trying to save will be something closer to 100% larger than a domestic or more. A cat of that size would be consistent with the Highland legends of them bringing down small deer.
How Long Does The Scottish Wildcat Live?
Wildcats live until around 7 years of age in the wild, and up to 15 years old in captivity. Predators such as eagles and foxes are a threat to unguarded kittens but will avoid confrontations with adult cats.
In the wild, a wildcat may sustain injuries which prevent it from hunting. Humans cause injury and death via shooting, snaring and road kills. There are no reliable statistics on the most common causes of death.
Scottish Wildcat Behaviour
Thought to be man-killers as recently as the 1950s, they are ferociously aggressive defending themselves or their young.
Like much bigger cats, they may even even mock-charge at larger threats, but in reality they deeply fearful of mankind and will do anything they can to avoid us.
Unlike most cats, the Scottish wildcat are multi-habitat hunters. This behaviour has evolved in response to the severe deforestation that has taken place across the British Isles. This particular behaviour distinguishes the Scottish Wildcat from the mainland European population of wildcats, which tend to be forest specialists.
Less Fearful Of Water
Scottish wildcats fear water less than other cats, which is lucky since they live in Scotland!
Their thick coat keeps out rain, and the capability to prowl along riverbanks provides a great deal of hunting opportunities. The Scottish wildcat will fearlessly swim across a river in order to explore the opposite side.
They live solitary lives in the most remote corners of the Scottish West Highlands. The wildcat is active mostly at dawn and dusk (making them a crepuscular species) hunting or maintaining territorial scent markings.
Territories can be as small as 1-2 square miles up to 40 square miles depending on the density of their prey. A typical territory will include a variety of habitats.
Whilst solitary most of the time, the territories of male and female Scottish wildcats will overlap occasionally during mating season.
Cats mark their territory with feline scent markings such as spraying, faeces, clawing and face-rubbing on tree trunks and fenceposts around their territory.
Other cats can interpret these scents to understand the sex, age and health of the other cat, indicating its value as a potential mate or threat as a competitor.
Vocal communication is extremely rare in Scottish wildcats. Hissing and yowling are saved for displays of aggression. Wailing is preserved for when female cats are looking for attention from a neighbouring male. Even kittens play in complete silence so as not to attract the attention of predators.
Wildcats have lived in the UK for at least two million years. They have been forced out occasionally by ice age glaciation, and have survived dramatic changes to their habitat over the last hundred years.
Diet and Hunting
Scottish wildcats are obligate carnivores surviving almost exclusively on meat. They play an important ecological role in controlling the numbers of small to medium sized prey animals such as rabbits, rats, hares and other small animals.
Whilst they will opportunistically prey on birds, insects, lizards and even sometimes fish, these species make up a fraction of their diet.
They follow typical feline hunting approaches: slowly creeping close to their prey for a pounce-chase-catch-kill. They will also utilise knowledge of their territory to carry out ambush attacks.
Their killing method is quick and clean with a bite to the throat or spinal cord at the neck.
The Scottish wildcat is often blamed for killing agricultural and game species such as game birds and lambs.
However, records of Scottish wildcat kills (prior to legal protection was afforded) suggest hybrids were the primary culprit.
As per most cats, in desperate times they can and will eat carrion and it is possible that sightings of them feeding on dead deer or sheep may have led to legends of them hunting such large species.
As with most cats, the Scottish Wildcat has finely honed senses.
The wildcat is able to see incredibly well at night. During the day, the wildcat sees only partially in colour, and their eyes are highly adept at spotting movement rather than detail. This is true even of their peripheral vision.
Their hearing can precisely triangulate the source of any sound, which allows them to hunt productively in dense cover. They can also detect and differentiate between a wide range of tones far in excess of canine ability.
As carnivores, their taste is developed for eating meat. They have little ability to detect sweet flavours.
Their touch sense is highly acute, and their paws are able to detect minute ground vibrations.
Whiskers and other specialised hairs are able to detect minute changes in air current.
The Scottish wildcat is very agile and has a highly developed balancing system.
Their smell is less developed than in canines, but still sufficient to detect prey and carrion. Smell is also used as part of communication with other wildcats which leave scent markings around territorial edges.
During mating season, female wildcats will heavily scent patches of territory which overlap with a male cat’s territory. They will also wail loudly at night to advertise readiness for mating during mid-winter.
Male/female pairs briefly socialise between January and March purely for breeding purposes, with an average of three kittens born between April and May that are then brought up by the solitary female.
Scottish wildcats only breed at this time of year so that their kittens can sufficiently grow to survive the harsh winter.
If a female loses her litter, she may seek to have a second litter in late spring or early summer.
Wildcats do not form classic “breeding pairs” and so far as we know males have no involvement with their young at all.
Kittens feed on their mother’s milk before quickly progressing to eating meat which is brought to them. Kittens then learn to hunt on live prey brought to them before progressing to true wild hunting.
After a spring, summer and autumn growing and learning to hunt and survive they become independent moving into their first winter and sexual maturity, but typically will not mate until their second year.
Closely related to domestic cats they are able to produce offspring with them, called hybrids. Noted for centuries this process appears to have become the primary threat alongside deforestation as the ratio of Scottish wildcats to domestic ferals has plummeted and it has become increasingly difficult for wildcats to find other wildcats to mate with.
The current ratio has been estimated at anything from 100:1 to almost 3000:1.
Some hybrids have a very distinctive form being pure black, very large but slim and lithe like a domestic cat, these are known as Kellas cats: they are not a new species but a specific mixture of wildcat/domestic genes.
A melanistic wildcat has been recorded on one occasion (the same process that creates all black leopards or jaguars).
Habitat and Distribution
Highly adaptable to habitat, Scottish wildcats make use of everything available to them and typical territories will include forest, moor, wetlands and agricultural fringes.
Current research suggests that pure examples only remain in the most remote corners of the West Highlands, with the East and anywhere outside of the Highlands being far too developed and full of domestic feral cats for the true form to have survived.
Hybrids are still very common in the East Highlands though rarely seen south of the Highland fault line.
The shape of the mouth is an important consideration when trying to identify a Scottish wildcat.
In short, the Scottish wildcat has an enormous jaw. The rest of the wildcat’s bone structure is just a little bit bigger than that of a domestic cat, but the jaw is relatively huge.
Long canines are located in front of a spine-sized gap which enables a firm grip and quick kill of prey. Their back teeth cross over each other closely like scissors. This enables them to chew through raw meat.
It’s not just a difference in size, however. There’s also a difference in design: the bottom edge of the wildcat jawbone has a little lump protruding from it. The jawbone of a domestic cat has a similar lump but it is much smaller.
Sadly, this difference isn’t much use unless you’re trying to identify a dead cat.
The lump on the jawbone acts as an anchor point for tendons and muscles. It’s large size allows muscles to attach to it more firmly which makes the jaw more powerful. A more powerful jaw enables the wildcat to make cleaner, quicker kills of prey (and also to take down larger prey. It will also help the wildcat gnaw through raw meat, fat and bones with ease.
Domestic cats developed to tackle small prey like mice. Their domestication has also provided them with a diet of pre-cooked marinated canned meats and biscuits, meaning they have virtually no use for explosive bite force. Over time, their jaw has simplified and weakened.
Bite force has never actually been measured in wildcats. We do know for certain that one wildcat bit through a protective handling glove though – the type used by falconers when handling birds of prey.
Observing and recording the facial markings of the Scottish wildcat is obviously fairly subjective. Facial markings are usually used to back up a suspicion of hybridisation.
An ideal wildcat should display three stripes along the side of the face, working from the eye down towards the jawline.
These stripes are usually strongly coloured and can also get mixed up with other markings around the eye.
Of the three stripes, the top two should fuse together a short distance from the eye. As such, what starts as three stripes at the eye ends as two stripes by the time it reaches the jawline.
This photo gives us a reasonable example of all these issues. You can see three strong stripes and the top two fuse together, though they also mix with one of the other eye markings.
Taken alone, this suggests the cat has strong wildcat genes, but probably has a little hybridisation as well.
Because photographs of wildcats are so rare, facial markings are a rarely mentioned feature of pelage criteria. There are many images of “wildcats” which have two, four or five stripes.
It is important to note that this is considered a minor fault. There are a number of cats which look generally very good but just have two stripes, and in the absence of other markings of hybridisation it probably represents a very minor genetic difference.
The colour of the mouth is one of the first things to look for when trying to identify a wildcat.
Domestic cats usually have bright white fur around their mouth. This feature is actually present in a significant number of “wildcats” that are kept in captivity, suggesting a level of hybridisation.
A genuine wildcat will have a very light brown fur around their mouth.
In fact, pure Scottish wildcats should never have any white fur. There should be no white flash on its chest, no white socks and no white on the cat’s underside. The underside of a wildcat is also a shade of brown.
Our very own Dr Paul O’Donoghue is carrying out genetic research which may help us to understand an links between the mouth colouring and the behaviour of the cat.
Cats first evolved something like 50-60 million years ago. The fossil record suggests they emerged in Europe, though genetics have been pointing to Asia in recent research.
Unlike today, vast swathes of Europe used to be covered in forest, making a great habitat for small cats. We know that 12 million years ago an animal called Martelli’s wildcat, which seems to have been nearly identical in looks to the Scottish wildcat, was roaming the continent.
The modern European wildcat evolved 2 million years ago. As sea levels rose after the ice age around 10,000 years ago, a population of these cats were isolated in the British Isles.
In the last few hundred years the expansion of people and destruction of forests across the UK battered the population down until only the wildcats in Scotland remained. These cats adapted their behaviour to survive in a fragmented multi-habitat environment.
Meanwhile, the mainland European wildcats were forced South by successive ice age glaciations, travelling into Asia and Africa.
After the ice age, some migrated back north to Europe. Others stayed behind and adapted to the warmer climate, becoming
- the slim and stripey African wildcat
- the slim and spotty Asiatic wildcat
- the slim, stripey and spotty Near Eastern wildcat
About 12,000 years ago, agriculture advanced in areas of the Middle East. Local Near Eastern wildcats started hanging around farms to prey on the rats and mice. Over many thousands of years these cats were gradually domesticated into working animals and then companion animals.
The Egyptians revered these cats because they enabled large scale farming and storage of grain. Not a bad contribution to civilisation!
Great travellers such as the Phonecians and the Romans are thought to have spread them beyond the Middle East in the last few thousand years.
Their heritage is visible in their coat markings. A true European or Scottish wildcat has a coat mostly made up of stripes. Brown tabby domestic cats have coat markings which are usually all broken stripes and spots.
To summarise, Scottish wildcats are a bit like a cousin to the domestic cat, and this close and recent relationship is the reason why they can cross-mate and produce fertile offspring.
Many species of cat can cross-mate, though those separated by longer timespans, such as lions and tigers, always produce infertile young.
Live trapping is a critical part of our action plan. It allows us to
- neuter feral cats, allowing wildcats to breed with one another
- get a proper look at cats for identification purposes
- take blood samples for genetic research and test for diseases, and
- provide the cats with a general health check
A cat may have to wait for a few hours in one of our live traps before a field worker can arrive. We therefore make sure the traps are comfortable enough to spend a few hours in by lining them with hessian and moss for insulation. We also wrap them in waterproof sheeting to ensure the cats are not exposed.
Somewhat amusingly, this has given us an unexpected problem. Cats (and pine martens) enjoy the food, comfort and shelter so much they keep coming back! I guess you could call them loyal customers.
In fact, we have found one pine marten (pictured below) repeatedly in various traps. She bundles all the insulation to one end and makes a nice little bed out of it.
Pine martens are actually very rare across the rest of the UK, but are quite common in the Wildcat Haven region. It pleases us that our traps are desirable, and there’s no harm in providing some (or one!) of them with a handy place to sleep through the cold winter months.
Clan Motto: Touch Not This Cat
You may have heard or seen the Scottish clan motto “ouch not this cat bot a glove”. Several variations of that motto exist, but all carry the same meaning: don’t mess with the Scottish wildcat!
The history of the motto is quite interesting. A group of people from Strathspey formed an alliance and called themselves Clan Chattan, which literally translates as “clan cat”.
Since then, many other clans have adopted a Scottish wildcat as their crest, including Clan Macpherson, Clan Mackintosh and Clan MacGillivray. All of these clans crests carry the motto “touch not this cat”.
The Clan Chattan were present at one of the most critical moments in Scottish history: the Battle of Culloden. There, they led the Jacobite charge.
Read a complete guide to Scottish clans here.