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  • Writer's pictureHarris Brooker

Scottish Wildcat in the Cairngorms National Park

One of our rarest and most elusive mammals, the Scottish Wildcat, epitomises the Scottish Highlands. Sometimes referred to as the Highland Tiger, they are about the same size as a domestic cat but bulkier. They have greyish fur with black stripes and a thick club-like tail, with three to five black bands on it, with no line running down. The Wildcat is said to look more ‘serious’, which emphasises its wild nature, far from the comparative gentleness of domestic cats. Contrary to what photos sometimes make it look like, they are not animals of pure forest, but like open areas bordering them, such as moorland and rough farmland.


In this image there is a Scottish Wildcat sat on a wooden platform in a crouched position with a fence behind it.
Scottish Wildcat (Photo Credit: Jane Hope)

Their principal diet is of rabbits and hares, but if those prey items are scarce, mice and voles are their second most important food source, with birds taken as well. They prefer to ambush their prey, sneaking up and then, when close enough, pouncing on them. They are secretive animals and tend to be crepuscular, that is, active at dawn and dusk - though they can be active during the day in places where they aren’t disturbed. Recently there has been a release programme undertaken by Saving Wildcats based at the Highland Wildlife Park in Kincraig, aimed at repopulating the area - 19 of them were released into the Cairngorms.


The reason for the release has a long and complicated history. Wildcats used to live across Britain. In Victorian times however, with the advent of grouse shooting estates, they were persecuted to the point where they became extinct in England, with the last record being in 1849. They didn’t die out in Scotland but became very rare. The World Wars lessened the persecution and the population recovered. They reached their peak numbers in the 1960s and 70s then their numbers began to decline again. It was only in 1988 that the Wildcat was given legal protection. By this time, the human population in the Highlands grown, with development encroaching into areas that Wildcats once called their own. With the increase in people came domestic cats, which were allowed to roam and they interbred with the Wildcats, to the point where the dilution of their gene pool became a serious concern. Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, there were estimated to be around 400 Wildcats, but after the 2010s this number was found to be lower than previously thought, because the previous estimates didn’t recognise how hybridised the existing population was.


There are two Scottish Wildcats sitting on top of a wooden board in the canopy of some trees peering downwards.
Scottish Wildcats (Photo Credit: Sally Nowell)

In 2019 it was deemed that the population had no chance of being self-sustaining and that unless something was done, the Scottish Wildcat, an important part of our natural heritage, would be lost forever – a species that it is said, to have been around in Scotland at the same time as the Woolly Mammoth. It was something people didn’t want to happen. Luckily, there was an insurance policy. Several Wildcats existed in captive settings such as the Highland Wildlife Park and in other places, which safeguarded the best genetic stock we had left. When it comes to breeding Wildcats however, the possibility exists that there may be no pure ones left, in which case a degree of hybridisation has to be accepted. Apparently in Europe, the hybridisation is less of a problem, allegedly because the Wildcats there have a greater choice of others of their kind, whereas because Scotland has fewer Wildcats, their choice of mates is less and they are therefore more likely to mate with domestic cats. Although hybridisation is the main threat, other threats include road collisions, feline diseases and habitat fragmentation.


In this image there is a Wildcat standing in the middle of some grassland with a large rodent in its mouth. The picture was taken in Spain.
Wildcat (photo taken in Spain) (Photo Credit: Julian Sykes)

There is still a long way to go before the Scottish Wildcat’s future is secure, but hopefully, given the success stories of reintroducing species such as Beavers and White-tailed Eagles, there will be a future where the Scottish Wildcat has a healthy place in our ecosystem once more.


Find out more about the Saving Wildcats project here https://savingwildcats.org.uk/

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