Saturday, 3 August 2013

The Plight of the Scottish Wildcat

The summer sun dips behind the pine trees. A deer drinks at the edge of a rippling stream; its ears flicking with every sound. An owl on sentry duty calls, heralding the changing of the forest guard. There is a stirring on a branch above and the rising moon catches a pair of waking eyes piercing the gloom. Then slowly he descends, like amber sap sliding down ancient bark. On the ground he pauses, displaying tiger-like black markings and a distinctive broad, ringed tail. He is alert and his senses keen. Something in the heather moves and he hugs the woodland floor, silently edging forward. He pounces, lifts his head revealing a small vole, turns and melts into the night.

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 Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia) is around fifty per cent larger than the average domestic cat. He is stockier, muscular, untameable, and has a pelage with distinctive black stripes and a blunt broad black-ringed tail. This, and his reputation as a ferocious fighter, has given rise to his other title of ‘the Highland Tiger’. Other less obvious differences between this cat and his domestic relatives include slightly different skull dimensions and a smaller intestinal tract. There are also genetic differences and scientific research in this area is on-going.

The wildcat’s preferred habitat is a mixture of woodland for shelter, fresh water for drinking and open land in which to hunt. Voles, mice, rats, birds and rabbits all form part of his diet and the ancient Caledonian forests of the Scottish Highlands and adjacent tracts of open land provide the ideal home. It is only here, in the north of Scotland, that native wildcats can still be found. Wildcats tend to breed in midwinter producing an average litter of 3-4 kittens in the spring and otherwise, they are solitary animals. Scent marking is the main way of communication with a male’s territory ranging up to eighteen square kilometres.

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.

Historically, wildcats have been hunted for their fur or because they killed small farm animals or birds bred for game shooting. This, along with habitat loss through deforestation, has greatly reduced their numbers. Today, the biggest problem for the wildcat is interbreeding with domestic and feral cats. The resultant hybridization destroys the true genetic signature of the species whilst contact with domestic cats renders them susceptible to unfamiliar feline diseases.

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.
There are various initiatives in the pipeline including the option of having expert scientists trap potential wildcats in any areas where there are frequent sightings and there exists the likelihood that some of these are true wildcats. All the cats could then have blood samples taken to test if they are genetically true wildcats. All other cats could be neutered and removed from the programme leaving the true wildcats to be reintroduced. If necessary the genetic pool could be be diversified further through the introduction of captive wildcats. Somehow the feral cats have to be removed from the equation for they are the greatest risk to the Scottish Wildcat.

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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Articles and photography copyright of Tom Langlands

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