A sub-species of the European wildcat, the Scottish wildcat is as near and dear to my heart as anything that’s not been one of my own domestic cats, or associate domestic cats, can get.
It is the only remaining, extant, UK wildcat species.
Its Latin name gets complicated. It was initially recorded as a unique species, Felis grampia, on first evaluation, however later evaluations determined insufficient difference between the European and Scottish types of wildcat for it to be its own species, but enough differences for it to be a recognised subspecies, Felis silvestris grampia. It was only in 2017 that the IUCN associated Cat Classification Task Force (the most elite group of cat classifiers in the world!) decided that it should be classified as Felis silvestris silvestris, the designation for all European wildcat populations. F. s. grampia is still a recognised synonym by them, but not an official classification. If you want some of the driest discussion of cats you’ll ever read the report is available here. It has some nice pictures in it.
These beautiful cats are not often seen, even in their native Scotland, but even less so in the South East of England where I live. Thankfully we have some wonderful wildlife parks near me. Port Lympne Wild Animal Park and Reserve I believe still has them, or had them in the past. I believe they are involved in a large, concerted captive breeding program between multiple zoos and parks. My first glimpse of a Scottish wildcat was probably through the chainlink fence there as a tabby slinker just snuck around the back of an enclosure.
Nearby Wildwood, a trust that owns and maintains woodland in Kent and the South West, also has Scottish wildcats and it was there I got to see them a lot closer up. These lovely little floofs really as something specil. Wildwood have a strong mission for understanding, protection, conservation and re-wilding of multiple European forest and woodland species so it’s another park/charity that I am happy to lend my support to. They have recently been involved in a trial project to re-release European bison to maintain ancient woodlands in the South East.
The cats look, to an untrained eye, like a chonker tabby. Their colouration could seem little different to your own domestic cat. There are some notable differences though. For one thing, they’re not just chonk, they’re a heftier cat, by necessity. This is a wild animal, not a pampered pet, and in the wild they live a rugged lifestyle. So they have bigger, thicker skeletons, greater muscle mass etc. The biggest difference, and the easiest way to spot a wild from a domestic, is the tail. Almost all domestic cats I have ever experienced have a pointed tail, the tail tapers to a triangular point, even if it’s got a big fluffy tail if you squeeze down the floof when petting that tail you will feel the taper. The Scottish wildcat has a blunt ended tail. It seems to end abruptly, with an almost perfect hemisphere, a dome, of dark fur at the tip.
They are mainly nocturnal so much that even a strong moonlight can put them off activity as well as. Adorably like my old cat Smooze, being put off by wind, too. Their main prey is rabbit and vole, with other rodents, mice and birds thrown into the mix. They have a habit of storing uneaten kills for later.
They are dreadfully endangered. Whilst it is estimated there are between 1,000 and 4,000 wildcats in Scotland only around 300-400 of these retain sufficient genetic purity to be considered ‘true’ wildcats. Most conservation efforts surrounding wildcats involves ensuring domestic cats are spayed or neutered, and any diseased cats from feral populations are removed or euthanized to ensure no diseases are spread to wildcats. For once I can’t blame humans directly! Or can I?
You see the wildcat used to be endemic to the entirety of the United Kingdom. The Doggerland, the isthmus between the UK mainland and the European mainland probably got completely covered in sea around 6000-7000 years ago, although the process would have begun much earlier. Either way, 6000 years ago there was probably a UK-wide wildcat population.
The South/South East was probably rid of them by the 16th century, by the mid-19th century it was clinging desperately to life in West Wales and as far north as Northumberland. By the 20th century it existed only in Northern Scotland. Why? Because people are dicks.
Forgive me for getting political but the UK has always had a bit of a backwards relationship with the notion of land ‘ownership’. Landkeeping and gamekeeping on land is something with roots dating back to feudalisms that can trace lineages to the ancient Kings and Queens of pre-romanised Britain’s Kingdoms. By the time of the Norman invasion of 1066, the notion of feudalism was an anachronistic concept, but even then, at Europe moved into a more mercantilised model of life and trade, Britain lagged behind. The notions of ‘public land’ or ‘wild land’ were seemingly unconsidered and so very wealthy interests would pay gamekeepers to patrol their land, protect their interests and kill anything considered a threat, or a profit.
Bears, boars, beavers, elk, reindeer, wolves, lynx, wildcats – All of these species, some of which since reintroduced, were made extinct in the British Isles between 0 CE and 2000 CE. You might think all this happened many hundreds upon hundreds of years ago but, nah…The last recorded wild wolf in Britain was in 1786. That’s not that long ago. A short enough time ago that we should have known better.
The impact of this has been dramatic. Humans have taken over the entire ecosystem of the United Kingdom, only recently are we learning the benefits of having other animals around to help manage it for us. The successful reintroduction of beavers in a few areas of the UK has opened up the ideas of re-introducing a number of species. Lynx and wolves have been proposed in order to help shift the burden of managing deer species numbers from hunters back to natural predators. As things stand, with no natural predators, deer have to be seasonally culled by human hunters to prevent their populations from growing out of control and destroying the ecosystem.
The wildcat? Well that beautiful creature was another victim of our narrow-minded, short-sighted, arrogant and selfish attitude to how the world ‘should’ be managed. All it would take is one or two gamekeepers seeing a cat catch a chicken and they’d have all the excuse they need to eradicate them. You only need look at the attitudes of many towards bovine tuberculosis and its potential spread by badgers to see how easy it is to come up with ‘kill them all’ as the solution to a ‘problem’.
The Scottish wildcat, then, makes me both happy and sad. I am sad it has come to this point. The heartlessness demonstrated by people to have pushed what is not just a keystone predator to the fringes out our islands but…A DAMN CUTE ONE TOO! How can you be unaffected shooting a cat as beautiful, adorable and majestic as a wildcat? At the same time there are significant efforts at play to boost numbers, increase range and make sure the Scottish wildcat can remain an emblematic species for the UK for – well at least as long as it takes Scotland to get independence. Then it’ll be emblematic of Scotland!
So what is the future of the Scottish wildcat?
The truth is I don’t know. There’s a biological war going on, and an ideological one. Many interested parties have a vested interest in ‘saving’ the Scottish wildcat, but few agree on the best ways of doing this. Hybridisation has been happening since domestic cats first hit our shores likely over 2,000 years ago. The Kellas Cat – a hybrid of a domestic and wild cat, is believed to be behind some of the legend of the cat-sìth – A Scottish cat of Folklore, a black cat with a white spot on its chest that famously lends its name to a recurring Final Fantasy enemy and also a main party character in Final Fantasy VII. Of the captive population breeding program, they are seeking cats with evidence of less than 5% hybridisation, effectively 95% ‘pure’. Any notion of true ‘purity’ is almost out of the window, with estimates somewhere between 0-30 cats being able to be considered truly ‘pure’.
As a result the Scottish wildcat’s future hangs in the balance of deciding what ‘purity’ in biology is, or means, or why it is important. If a cat lives like a Scottish wildcat, in the forests of the Scottish highlands, looks like a Scottish wildcat, does it matter if it is interbred with other cats, domestic or re-introduced European wildcats?
To maintain the so-called ‘purity’ would take efforts and management of potential inbreeding problems. I’m fairly certain a population of around 30 ‘pure’ individuals would be considered functionally extinct and yet, as mentioned at the top of the article, there are as many as 3,000-4,000 ‘wildcats’ in Scotland, they’re just not all ‘pure’ enough.
Perhaps establishing relative levels of purity is a good way to go? Neuter or remove very hybridised individuals from the population but allow some measure of ‘impurity’ to remain.
It leads us to fundamental questions of biology. When is a species not a species? At what point does it go from one thing to another and how much do we accept that? Humans, we have short life spans, we’re a biological cough, a geological sneeze and a cosmological blink in time. We like to believe in the stasis, the constancy, the permanence, it makes us feel good. Change, though, is inevitable.
Is the Scottish wildcat still the same wildcat it was when it was endemic to all of Britain, is it the same wildcat as when Doggerland was still a landmass and it was all just one big happy community of European wildcat? When did it go from European to Scottish? Why then, does it inevitably need to go from Scottish to non-existent? If the hybrids are living just as well in the wild as their purebred brethren, surely the easiest answer is to minimise future hybridisation and leave them be? If the gene pool is already so diluted surely another easy answer is to reintroduce some European wildcats to bolster the wild genes versus the domestic? Why are these controversial non-options? At what point, in nature, do humans accept change, and use nature’s capacity for change for our conservation efforts moving forwards?
So many conservation efforts I know about are regarding saving this, protecting that, stop exploitation of this, stop overhunting or overfishing that – It’s about preventing change. Some of the greatest conservations achievements we make are in embracing it. Cleaning out pollutants from old ships and sinking them to create new, artificial reef habitats. Management and establishment of new woodlands to promote wildlife corridors or wider habitats for species, changing our own actions and practices to make them more ecologically sound, reduction of harmful fishing practices and encouragement of rod-and-line and provenance tracing – It seems the greatest successes we have are when we embrace change and do our best to mitigate damage, rather than try and wall something off behind protection.
From the Highlands to the Channel Islands I have a dream of wildcats proliferating across the entire United Kingdom once again. In order for that to come true, holding on to some nationalist ideal of what the ‘Scottish’ wildcat is supposed to be may have go completely out the window and instead we must ask what an acceptable future for all British wildcats should be.
Life is not, and never has been, a videogame. There is no save-and-reload. It is very difficult to get back to a truly wild version once it has been hybridised and mutated beyond originality. But does that make Przewalski’s horses any less impressive seeing them running in the wild? If a part-scottish, part-European wildcat is just as healthy, fills the same niche, looks the same, acts the same – what actually is the difference?
I just want those cats, in the wild, where they belong.
Not had enough cat? How about a 20 minute documentary on Scottish wildcats?
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