Sep 13

The Scottish wildcat could become extinct in the wild within months as the number of pure-bred individuals has fallen perilously low, according to conservationists.

Photo of a Scottish wildcat resting in woodland

Generally considered to be a subspecies of the wildcat, Felis silvestris, the Scottish wildcat is under serious threat from interbreeding with domestic and feral cats, as well as from disease.

Previous estimates put the number of pure-bred wildcats at around 400, while a report from the Cairngorms Wildcat Project, funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), recently estimated that just 150 breeding pairs remain.

Numbers alarmingly low

A team from the Scottish Wildcat Association (SWA) has now reviewed 2,000 records of camera trap sightings, eyewitness reports and road kill to assess the number of remaining pure-bred cats, based on accepted coat markings that identify a true wildcat.

Alarmingly, they found that only 1 in 100 individuals was pure-bred. Out of an estimated 3,500 wildcats and hybrids, this suggests that as few as 35 pure-bred individuals may now remain, putting the Scottish wildcat at serious risk of extinction in the near future.

Photo of Scottish wildcat kittens in den

According to Steve Piper of the Scottish Wildcat Association, “However you juggle the figures it’s hard to find anything positive. If you ignore the eyewitness sightings because they’re unreliable the numbers get even worse.”

Even if you decide the population of hybrids is larger you have to multiply it to impossible levels to get to the commonly quoted figure of 400 wildcats. The overwhelming evidence is that the wildcat is going to be extinct within months, anything else is blind hope.”

Photo of a Scottish wildcat looking out of den

Conserving the Scottish wildcat

The Scottish Wildcat Association has suggested that licensed trapping of wildcats should be allowed so that blood samples can be taken, giving scientists a better understanding of the state of the wildcat population.

It has also been suggested that pure-bred wildcats should be relocated to areas with fewer risks and where they can be better protected.

Photo of a Scottish wildcat stretching

Scottish Natural Heritage has said that the Scottish wildcat is a priority species, and the organisation is producing a new Wildcat Action Plan aimed at conserving this unique feline.

According to a spokesperson for Scottish Natural Heritage, “We agree that the evidence points to wildcat populations being in a parlous state. However, we need to be careful when drawing conclusions from sub samples and unverified records. The limited survey information available on this cryptic species provides an uncertain basis from which to state precisely how many animals may be living in the wild. This is something the action plan might seek to address.”

Read more on this story at BBC News – Scottish wildcat extinct within months, association says.

Find out more about the Scottish wildcat at the Scottish Wildcat Association.

View photos and videos of wildcats on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

  • Mallinnar Krishna VG Thambu (September 14th, 2012 at 2:29 pm):

    If this Scottish wildcat is wiped out – some more serious ecological imbalances are in pipe line. So steps to be taken at once to save this. Krishna

  • Kate (September 17th, 2012 at 10:09 am):

    If something can be done please do it before it is too late .

  • Doug Norris (September 17th, 2012 at 10:19 am):

    Sadly the extinction of the Scottish Wildcat is probably just going to be recorded as a footnote in the relentless march of the mass extinction caused by humans that is occurring before our eyes.

    To save the Scottish Wildcat will, in my opinion, require a huge effort. All that I can think of is to create reserves in which cats (and other ground based animals that could cause problems) cannot enter or leave the sanctuaries. This can be done. In New Zealand sanctuaries have been created for local wildlife that are surrounded by predator proof fencing to keep out introduced mammal predators.

    With the right will and resources this idea can be modified to save the Scottish Wildcat.

    The Scots have been presented with a huge challenge. I wish them well for the sake of us all.

  • Tom Cameron (September 17th, 2012 at 1:38 pm):

    I cannot see any way of saving the pure bred species. If they are caught and relocated then it is only a matter of time before they mate with domestic or feral cats and the problem starts all over again. It’s just evolution on it’s merry way.

  • Doug Norris (September 18th, 2012 at 7:16 am):

    Another idea regarding the attempt to save the Scottish Wildcat is to use unpopulated islands as sanctuaries. This assumes that there are any left that are large enough for sustainable Wildcat populations. If there are any feral cats on the islands, they would have to be removed first.

  • Doug Norris (September 18th, 2012 at 11:12 am):

    Tom, I don’t think we should just throw in the towel. We owe it to future generations to preserve what we can. It may be evolution, as you say, but it’s evolution on steroids that is killing off species at a rate that is comparable to natural processes that caused mass extinctions in the past – the current mass extinction is the first one triggered by a single species that has the ability to stem the tide. I feel that we, as a species, should exercise that power to stem the tide

  • Sara (September 21st, 2012 at 2:51 pm):

    what can be done to save them?

  • George Marx (November 4th, 2012 at 3:54 pm):

    The state of the Scottish wildcat may give us humans the possibility to save the flickering remnants of the Scandinavian feral cat. Once there existed a Norwegian wildcat, but the cats included in the standards accepted by Scandinavian breeders is an anomaly, a “reconstruction” of domestic short- and long-haires, sometimes Main Coon and other “purebreds”. The Scandinavian, the Norwegian wildcat is long time extinct, The Mediterranean wildcat (very shorthaired and longlegged sandy tiger) is also on the verge of extinction through “dilution”. It’s the same sad story everywhere, and who is to blame? The most invasive specie of all, the global destructor man, who by lack of wisdom dangers it’s own future and survival. Save the Scottish widcat NOW! We have the means and the knowledge. Do we have the wisdom?