The Scottish wildcat is a unique island population of the European wildcat isolated for the last 9,000 years by the English Channel. They are the largest of the wildcat family, which spreads across Europe, Africa and Asia, and can be up to twice the size of a domestic pet cat.
Their fur is much thicker than a domestic cat and displays distinctive unbroken black and brown stripes: spots, broken stripes or white fur are all indications of hybridisation (cross-mating) with domestic cats.
Another stand out feature is their thick banded tail, perfectly ringed with no dorsal stripe running off of the spine: imperfect rings or dorsal markings are again signs of hybridisation.
Like all cats they have retractable claws, exceptional night vision, part-colour day vision, superb hearing and a body form enabling excellent sprinting, pouncing and all-round power.
Scottish wildcats are a classic cat epitomising both the solitary, independent super-predator and the mysterious and wild spirit of the Highlands as few other animals can.
Unlike most cats they are multi-habitat hunters, a direct response to the heavy deforestation that has taken place across the British Isles and distinguishing them from the mainland European population which tend to be forest specialists.
Fortunately living in Scotland, Scottish wildcats also have a reduced fear of water, their thick coat keeping out rain, river edges providing opportunities for hunting and rivers themselves an easily swum obstacle to explore the opposite side.
Believed to be man-killers as recently as the 1950s, they are ferociously aggressive defending themselves or their young, even mock-charging large threats as a big cat will, but they are actually deeply fearful of mankind and will do anything they can to avoid us.
They live solitary lives in the most remote corners of the Scottish West Highlands, 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 prey density, and will include a variety of habitats. Although they are solitary most of the time male and female Scottish wildcats will overlap parts of their territories to enable mating at the right time of year.
Communication between individuals is by typical feline scent markings such as spraying, faeces, clawing and face-rubbing a variety of markers 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 save for aggressive displays or a female in heat wailing 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, forced out from time to time by ice age glaciation and surviving dramatic changes to their habitat and relationship with humans over the last few centuries. From respected spirits of the forests to detested pests, fortunately the last few decades has seen a gradual return of human good will and forest cover.
Diet and Hunting
Scottish wildcats are obligate carnivores surviving almost entirely on meat and they play an important ecological role controlling small to medium sized prey 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 creeping close to prey for a pounce-chase-catch-kill approach or utilising knowledge of their territory to carry out ambush attacks. The kill is quick and clean with a bite to the throat or spinal cord at the neck.
Though often blamed for killing agricultural and game species such as game birds and lambs, records of Scottish wildcat kills prior to legal protection suggest hybrids, with their reduced fear of mankind, were the primary culprit, though opportunism is no doubt risked in a harsh winter or when young are being raised.
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.
Wildcats carry a traditionally feline armoury of highly tuned senses: superb night vision, good day vision in part colour and tuned to spot movement rather than detail even in their peripheral vision.
Their hearing can precisely triangulate the source of any sound so that they can hunt prey in dense cover, they can also detect a vast range of tones and minute differences between them, far in excess of even canine ability.
As carnivores their taste is developed for meat eating and has little ability to detect sweet flavours. The layout of the teeth is also highly specialised: long canines in front of a spine-sized gap to enable a firm grip and quick kill of prey, with the back teeth crossing closely over each other like scissors for chewing through raw meat. A Scottish wildcat jaw is much larger, more robust and powerful than a domestic cat.
Their touch sense is highly acute, with paws able to detect minute ground vibrations, whiskers and other specialised hairs able to detect minute changes in air current and a highly developed balancing system enabling spectacular three dimensional agility moving through the tree canopy.
Smell is less developed than in canines but still used for detecting prey and carrion and as part of communication with other wildcats which leave scent markings for each other around territorial edges.
Biology and Reproduction
Females will heavily scent mark patches of territory shared with males and wail loudly at night to advertise readiness for mating in 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.
Wildcats do not form classic “breeding pairs” and so far as we know males have no involvement with their young at all.
Scottish wildcats only breed at this time of year so that their kittens can sufficiently grow to survive the harsh winter, exceptionally if a female loses her litter she may seek to have a second in late spring or early summer.
At first fed on their mother’s milk kittens quickly progress to eating meat brought to them, 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.
Thought to live until around 7 years of age in the wild, and up to 15 in captivity, predators such as eagle and fox are a threat to unguarded kittens but will avoid confrontations with adult cats: old age and injuries preventing hunting or human caused issues such as shooting, snaring and road kills will account for most deaths, though there are no reliable statistics on the most common causes of death.
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.