#LoveSpecies nominee: Scottish wildcat
Nominated by: Scottish Wildcat Action
Why do you love it?
The Scottish wildcat is a really charismatic species of cat that lives in the Scottish Highlands. It features on many clan crests and is a part of Scottish folklore so it’s part of our Scottish identity. Sadly there aren’t many of them left. Latest estimates suggest there could be as few as 100 in the wild.
Wildcats are built like a mini tiger but they are only slightly larger than a tabby domestic cat. If you look closely you can see they have longer limbs and a wider head with a powerful jaw. These are good for catching and eating live prey.
The most notable difference is the thick bushy tail which has black rings and a blunt black tip as though it has been dipped in paint. It’s a beautiful animal with some serious attitude.
What are the threats to the Scottish wildcat?
The biggest threat today actually comes from domestic cats that haven’t been neutered or vaccinated. Although Scottish wildcats are our native cat and domestic cats were introduced by humans much later, they can still interbreed and even catch the same diseases.
The Scottish wildcat is now a protected species but it is so heavily outnumbered by domestic cats that it’s difficult for them to find and mate with another wildcat, and instead they often mate with domestic cats and have hybrid kittens. These hybrids have mixed wildcat and domestic cat ancestry and as hybridisation continues with each successive generation, the wildcat genes are being diluted. Soon we will lose our native cat altogether.
Every time they come into contact with a domestic cat they are also at risk of catching diseases because mating or fighting over territory passes on infectious diseases like feline leukaemia (FeLV) or feline Aids (FIV).
Historically, humans hunted wildcats and this reduced their numbers. People still hunt cats today, but now they aim to shoot unowned domestic cats living in the wild (known as feral cats) as a legal method of controlling predators. However, it can be easy to mistake a domestic cat with a wildcat if shooting at night or using snares.
What are you doing to save it?
The good news is that, thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Scottish Wildcat Action is working with over 20 partner organisations and lots of local people to protect wildcats in the wild. Our friends at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland are also breeding them for later release.
Wildcats are notoriously elusive and very cunning. With the added issue of hybridisation, it’s difficult to even identify them in the wild. Thankfully, new technology is helping us to find out where they are. We use hundreds of motion-sensitive trail cameras to gather images of cats living in the wild and this helps us target our conservation work more effectively. Using the intelligence from the trail cameras, we can also find out where there are feral cat hotspots and target them for neutering and vaccination. Ferals are domestic cats whose ancestors were once pets or farm cats that were abandoned or strayed; however, because they are a domesticated species they do not have the adaptations to cope with wild-living like the wildcat. These feral cats live a hard life, often riddled with disease and parasites, breeding with even their close relatives and scraping a living by scrounging from human food sources.
The best thing for them is to stop them from breeding further and making sure they are immune to some of the more common diseases. Once they have been neutered and vaccinated we return them to the wild because they are not socialised to humans. This way they also act as a buffer between wildcats and any new feral cats in the area who may not be neutered or vaccinated.
We rely on local sightings too and we have over 150 fantastic volunteers helping us to maintain the cameras, catch feral cats to take them to the vet, and to raise awareness of how cat owners can help by micro-chipping, neutering and vaccinating their pet cats. Finally, we are also working with our partner, the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, to encourage the use of wildcat-friendly predator control methods so that wildcats are not accidentally caught in the crosshairs.