The Scottish Wildcat

The Unofficial nation animal of Scotland- the Highland Tiger has roamed these lands long before any humans, though may not be roaming them for much longer.

Ice Age Invasion

Officially known as Felis Silvestris, there has been fossil discoveries of wildcats dating back 12million years, and these are said to be the common ancestor of all kinds of wildcats around the world, along with all their domestic counterparts and the rest of the cat family. It was around 2million years ago that the European Wildcat would be born, later splitting into two- creating the two recognised species of wildcat today, the African Wildcat and the European wildcat. Our Scottish sub-species is considered to be pound for pound the most fiercest.

Affectionately known as the Highland Tiger, the Scottish Wildcat is a close cousin to the European Wildcat- and they originally came about as a lost pack. Groups of European Wildcats had walked to Scotland during the Ice Age period- but became trapped on the island when the English Channel was refilled from the melting ice. They are considered to be the largest of all the European wildcats. Today, they are very endangered with only around 400-600 remaining, though there is significant conservation programmes to improve this population.

These cats used to be found roaming and breeding widespread across the British Isles, but they quickly became extinct in Ireland during the Iron Age, roughly the same time as domestic cats became popular. They haven’t been seen in England & Wales since the mid 17th century- again predominantly due to destruction of lands and persecution. While in Scotland, due to hunting and attempted domestication they can today only be found in isolated parts of the Scottish Highlands, such as Strathspey, Angus Glen and Strathbogie.

The wildcat looks very similar to a tabby cat, and this is part of the reason they were hunted for long spells as unlike a tabby cat they can be dangerous and vicious when approached- and had to be killed. They were long known to attack humans, and children would have been particularly vulnerable to this. So having them widespread throughout the country was very dangerous. Their location today in these isolated areas of the highlands is most likely the only place they weren’t persecuted.

They have long been recognised as being untameable, and there is no record of any wildcat being tamed. Many have tried, both professionally and personally, generally focusing on attempting to raise them in a domesticated environment- but these experiments always ended in failure. The original wildcats have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, and it would likely take a similar period if the scantly remaining ones left today are to be converted.


Features

Much of the facial features of the many Scottish wildcats differ- though are amongst identical to that of a tabby, both in details and variety. Of course living in the wild would naturally bring about a more rugged look, and the wildcats are notably much more stockier with a more flatter face appearance. To combat the cold the wild cat has developed several distinctive features over all the years, most notably in fur.

The Scottish Wildcat has thick double layered fur (including between the toes), specifically for survival in the harsher Scottish winter periods. Broken down, there is roughly 30,000 hairs per cm2 on the wildcats. This fur is generally brownish with tiger-like black stripes. Its black-ringed tail is thick and bushy with an all black tip. It was long difficult to determine size of a Scottish wildcat, largely due to the history of hybridisation with the domestics, though it can be said the commonly held viewpoint that the wildcat was around 50% larger than the domestics has today no truth in it.

Today, the majority of wildcats are only slightly larger than the domesticated pets. However, there is a difference in the the stripes, and particularly those on the tail, and can be used in distinguishing them apart from domestics. These features of the friendly ones (including hybrids) have much thinner tails, while their stripes are very clear- with the wild one having broken and patchy stripes, while the beautiful thick tails of the Scottish wildcats is a very noticeable difference.

The wildcat has razor sharp teeth, strong jaws, and very powerful leg muscles. They are very fast and can make bounding leaps as well as being capable of climbing trees and swimming. There hairs, particularly whiskers, are very important to them as they provide crucial senses. They use their whiskeys to guide them in tight spots, and assistants them in seeing in thedark. The huge retractable claws of the Highland Tiger can open up to be as big as a human finger, and are amongst the most sharpest in the entire animal kingdom.

In comparison to house cats, the wildcats have much larger brains, though the house cats do naturally live for longer. Wildcats can only live upto 8 years in the wild, though this is extended to 15-20 years in captivity (matching the housecats). The Scots wildcat is largely a solitary animal, except when mating or when the female is raising kittens, while they are also nocturnal animals but their binocular vision is not extended into darkness, and will become weaker (which is why they’ll be needing the whiskers).


An Opportunistic Predator

The Highland Tiger is a fierce and opportunistic predator. Weighing in at upto 9kg, with a potential growth of a medium-sized domestic dog- they are not to be messed with. They are very aggressive, very muscled and very skilled- killing there target in a matter of seconds. Rodents, birds and fish are some of the meal targets, but they largely feed off the Rabbit, which makes up around 60% of their diet. Unbelievably they have been known to take down deer and sheep too.

The wildcats have a significant advantage in the respect that they prey within their own territory- making it effectively a home game. Living largely in mixed woodland, they are accustom to flocks of various animals passing through while moving from the dense forests into the more open lands of grass, and will await their arrival before pouncing.

Notably, unlike other cats (and many animals), they will eat all of their prey. The coats of the prey provides them with roughage (digestion), the bones provide calcium, and the meat provides everything else they need. In terms of their own predators, golden eagles and foxes will regularly target the wildcat kittens, though will generally stay clear of adults- leaving humans as there only predator. They are thus regarded in Scotland as being top of the food chain- atleast the Scottish foodchain.

As mentioned before, humans have a history of pursuing wildcats, and it wasn’t just for safety- they are considered to have had significant use medical purposes. The English doctor, William Salmon, was well known for his medical writing and wrote up about the benefits of the wildcats to humans in the late 17th century. Salmon had discussed din detail how the body parts of the wildcat could be used for medical purposes- with the cats flesh being used for treating gout, the fat on its body could be used dissolving human tumours, while its blood could be drunk to heal general sickness, and there was even a use for the excrement of the wildcat- which could be utilised to treat baldness.

Wildcat snatches Meerkat (photo courtesy of Dailymail)

Reproduction

Scottish wildcat kittens are usually born between the months of March and April, following a mating period between January and late February- with a 60-70 day gestation period. The litter of the highland tiger can range from just one kitten to seven. It can be dangerous to have large litters though- as these kittens are born both blind and partially deaf, and are unable to walk until around 18-22days after birth. They are thus very helpless in the wild.

It can take upto two weeks for kittens to fully open their eyes aswell. However, they are born with fur- very important for early survival in the Scottish Highlands. The kittens will tend to hunt with their mothers after about 10-12 weeks, while it will be around the same period in months before the hunt on their own. They will be fully grown at this point.

(photo courtesy of bbc)

Grass. Alot of cats (both domestic and wild) will be seen eating long blades of grass. This is for health purposes- as the grass helps to clear out the cats digestive tract by removing indigestible fur and feathers out of its system- much like the benefits of eating the fur of other animals. The wildcat may be sick because of this and this is due to the lack of natural enzymes, and the eating may in this case be to relieve any stomach pains the cat may be experiencing due to the raw meat they are often eating.Grass also contains large amounts of folic acid (vitamin B9), and this boosts a cats growth levels. It could also contribute to explaining why the wildcats are bigger than domestics, as they eat significantly more grass. Due to differences in diet it tends not to be necessary as much for housecats, though any constant grass eating behaviour may be a sign of a vitamin deficiency.


Genetic Corruption

As previously mentionedmentioned, the Scottish wildcat iss about 400-600 in numbers, but that is just the ones scientifically recognised as wild. There is an estimated 2,000 to 5,000 of them, but many are known as Hybrid cats, commonly known as Kellas cats. These are the ones that have mixed over the years with house-cats and interbred. This genetic corruption is a major problem, and is considered the biggest threat to the existence of the Highland Tigers. Some nature scientists have actually suggested that there may only be 40 of natural and pure wildcats left in the highlands.

They are protected by law in terms of them being hunted and killed, but this is a complicated one. The wildcats look like tabbies so there can be difficulties in proving if a killed cat was a wild cat or tabby one- and subsequently many hunters will escape punishment. They do not make great pets either, even the Hybrid ones. They are notorious for their aggression and being extremely timid- thus incapable of domestication.

They are one of the only animals to never have been tamed by humans- not even when born in captivity. It can be extremely dangerous to attempt to keep Kellas cats as pets- they may be quiet as kittens bit they will always become wild, and will look to attack and kill smaller humans aswell. They will simply always be wild.

The Kellas cats are recognised as a sub species and are the rarest mammals in the UK. They have been seen in recent occasionally in recent decades in Aberdeen and parts of Fife.


Wild Mythology

The Highland Tigers are not to be underestimated- just ask a local Strathpefferman. There is a story about a Scottish wildcat from the 90s. The man was out walking his dog, a Siberian Husky, in north Strathpeffer. He had released the dog from its lead upon entering a secluded area, but soon found the dog chasing what he originally thought was a normal cat. The man lost track of the dog chasing the cat, though frantically caught up- fearing that his dog had killed someone’s pet.

However, much to his horror his dog was being badly beaten- and the wildcat had turned the tables, with the dog now being the one on the run. The man stated that the cats claws were bigger than his dogs, and the muts torn and bloody face only further emphasises this. The Highland Tiger has also been considered responsible for the death of humans before, though the wild accusations died down in the 1940s.

Many Scottish clans looked to the wildcat for leadership, and they subsequently feature in several clan crests and motto’s. They are considered a symbol of fierceness, independence, and survival. Previous inhabitants the Picts idolised the wildcat, and it is said that Caithness (an old pictish settlement) was named after the Wildcat. There is a myth that the old pictish tribe, the Catti Tribe, was viciously attacked by Wildcats when attempted to seize land in the highlands- this contributing to wildcat becoming their clan symbol- as the Catti’s become desirous to achieve their levels of fierceness and independence.


The Future

As previously stated the Scottish wildcat is on the verge of extinction. Many have stated the belief that they are now ‘purely” extinct in the wild- with the only pure ones left being held in captivity. Hybridisation (cross breeding) is the major threat, and the Scottish Wildcat Action Group (SWAG) was set up in the early 2000s to tackle this.

SWAG was established as an emergency to stop the Scottish wildcat going extinct. They have studied the wildcat and gathered a wide range of information and extensive date to support the conservation efforts. They have overseen the introduction of extensive conservation breeding programmes introduced across Scotland, while prioritising and protecting areas in which the wildcat is being affected greatly by disease and persecution.

The group have identified 5 areas (Strathpeffer, Morvern, Northern Strathspey, Angus Glens, and Strathbogie) in the highlands where the wild cats are predominantly found and in danger. Keeping other cats out of these areas is the main target, and is proving to be challenging with the numbers in these areas continuing to decline. The group, along with support groups, have successfully neutered more than 500 domestic and hybrid cats in the 5 target areas.

The designated areas by SWAG One of the wildcats at the Highland Wildlife Park

Elsewhere in the fight for the future of the Scottish wildcat, the Highland Wildlife Park have established a successful breeding programme- and 17 kittens have been born here since 2014. Other zoos have always launched breeding programmes, with various success, and there is today around 80 highland tigers in zoos across the world (largely the UK & Europe). So there is strong hope and optimism for the future of our unofficial national animal.


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