He is a Scottish Wildcat and his ancestors have lived in these forests since the last ice age separated this land from modern day Europe. He was here before man came to these lands and before domestic cats existed. Back then, he shared this island with his distant cousin the Lynx, before the latter was hunted to extinction. Now the wildcat stands alone, the only native member of the cat family to live in Britain and sadly, it too is perilously close to extinction.
The independent and fearless qualities of the wildcat were admired by ancient Scottish tribes and clans: The myths of the ancient Catti tribe of northern Scotland tell how their ancestors were attacked by wildcats: Caithness (Land of the Cats) was home to the Pictish tribes that venerated the wildcat: Today, the Chief of the Sutherland Clan is known as Morair Chat (Great Man of the Cats): The federation of Highland Clans, known as Clan Chattan (Clan of the Cats), that led the charge at the Battle of Culloden has the clan motto, ‘Touch not the cat bot (without) a glove’ and many clans have the wildcat as their motif.
Establishing precisely how many wildcats exist is difficult. Recently, efforts have been made to record as many wildcat sightings as possible and then attempt to establish if these are pure wildcat or hybrid. The results suggest that at worst, there may be only a few tens of these cats in the wild and at best, perhaps four hundred.
The situation is critical. If these numbers are correct the Scottish Wildcat is now more endangered than the Bengal Tiger.
The plight of the wildcat is now acknowledged but whether the situation can be redressed remains to be seen.
In 2007-2012 Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) instigated the Cairngorms Wildcat Project. It was a Species Action Framework intended to raise awareness of the wildcat problem. SNH sought to educate farmers, game-keepers and cat owners as well as expanding neutering programmes through local vets. It endeavoured to work with estates to promote feral cat control without harming true wildcats and it intensified reporting and documentation of potential sightings.
Sadly, none of this is easy and it may well be that time has just run out for the wildcat.
As the first shafts of sunlight sparkle on the woodland stream I look for the wildcat that inspired my ancestors but he has gone.
I can no longer be certain that he will return.
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