British Wildlife of the Week
Since the extinction of the lynx around 1,500 years ago, the wildcat has been Britain’s only native feline. Today, it lives exclusively in Scotland, primarily remote parts of the Highlands, and for that reason it is called the Scottish wildcat. But this is a far cry from centuries past when wildcats roamed much of the UK. So what has pushed this shy and elusive little predator to its current precarious position?
The answer is simple: centuries of coordinated persecution. In the 1500s, during a time of serious food shortages, legislation encouraged the killing of any mammal or bird perceived to conflict with human interests. As consumers of poultry and rabbits, wildcats were high up on the hit list and bounties were placed on their heads. Under the Tudor Vermin Act, parishes paid upwards of a penny – a large sum of money in this period of extreme poverty – for every wildcat head brought to the churchwarden.
Later, during the Victorian era, gamekeepers armed with guns and snares were employed to rid shooting estates of anything that competed for grouse. Killing wildcats – along with other undesirable ‘vermin’ seen as a threat to the sporting game culture – became an important part of a gamekeeper’s job. This unremitting onslaught, coupled with a loss of suitable woodland habitat, resulted in the extinction of wildcats in both England and Wales by 1880. At this point, even the remaining populations in Scotland were confined to the remotest and most inaccessible glens and forests of the Highlands.
Fortunately, a reprieve came during the upheaval of the First World War. Because all men able to handle weapons were packed off to fight in the trenches, the number of gamekeepers crashed, allowing the wildcat to make a modest comeback. If this hadn’t happened, it is likely that the wildcat would have gone the way of the lynx and been exterminated from the British Isles altogether.
Since then, the Scottish wildcat has managed to cling on, but it still remains extremely rare. If a cat is said to have nine lives, the Scottish wildcat is definitely living on borrowed time. Although today the more enlightened attitudes of landowners and gamekeepers has resulted in a drop in persecution, the wildcat still faces many threats, including road traffic, accidental deaths in snares, and falling prey populations caused by disease. But by far the most insidious danger is hybridisation.
The Scottish wildcat may resemble a stocky, rugged tabby cat, but make no mistake – this is not a pet cat. It isn’t even a feral cat. It is a truly wild creature, about as far from tame as you can get: phenomenally shy, silent, and unapproachable. For these reasons, you are unlikely to get up close to a wildcat, but if you did somehow manage it you would notice that the animal you are observing is bigger, heavier and more muscular, with a broader head, than your average tabby cat. More trained eyes might also realise that a wildcat’s tail is thicker and bushier than a domestic cat’s and has a series of broad, well-defined concentric black bands along its length, and a black tip.
But although wildcats and domestic cats are, when closely inspected, physiologically distinct, their provenance is nonetheless close enough for the two to interbreed and even produce fertile offspring. It is thought that there are at least 125,000 feral domestic cats roaming the Scottish countryside. This allows for many opportunities for hybridisation, which dilutes the wildcats’ genetic purity. Once wild and feral cats have interbred, the ‘domestic genes’ will not go away, and the more frequently it happens, the less pure the wild stock becomes. Interbreeding in this way is threatening the species with ‘genetic extinction.’
Of course, domestic cats have been in the British Isles for 2,000-3,000 years, so hybridisation is nothing new. Few wildcat populations in Scotland will be completely free of domestic cat DNA, but genetic pollution is now corrupting the species on a much larger scale than ever before. Hybridisation makes it extremely difficult to work out how many Scottish wildcats remain. Clinching a firm identification in the field, especially when these mysterious and elusive animals usually only afford the very briefest of glimpses (and even then, often only from a distance), is not easy. Is the feline you are observing a genuine wildcat? Or merely a feral cat with a light smattering of wildcat genes? Fortunately, detailed and often forensic examinations of images of cats caught on remote camera-traps allow scientists to identify the physical hallmarks of pure wildcat genes – the dark parallel unbroken tiger-like stripes along the flank; the lack of spots on the rump; the blunt, black-banded tail – and then build a picture of how our last remaining wild feline is faring.
Sadly, that picture is rather depressing. The rather vague estimate of between 30 and 430 pure-type wildcats are thought to remain in Scotland – a wide enough discrepancy to confirm that nobody really knows how many of them there are, only that there definitely aren’t enough. Some authorities believe that the geographically isolated wildcats in Scotland are a unique species or subspecies, but there is little evidence to support this, so pure wildcats from captive populations in Britain and the rest of Europe could be used to increase numbers and provide genetic diversity. In fact, the IUCN believes that the wildcat population in Scotland is no longer viable – that the population is too small and fragmented; the hybridisation too advanced – and that, if it is to be saved at all, it will need to be supplemented from an outside source. In 2013, the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan was launched to set up wildcat safe havens and start a breeding programme to produce pure cats.
But before any reintroductions can take place, almost all experts agree that tackling feral cats is a necessary first step. This includes trapping, neutering and vaccinating feral cats against diseases that might spread to wildcats, but also, if necessary, culling them. This may be a controversial solution, but it could be the only way by which this magnificent animal can be saved.
Although most, if not all, remaining Scottish wildcats have a degree of domestic cat ancestry, many still look and behave like true wildcats. If the flow of domestic cat genes can be limited or stopped, the descendants of these hybrids may become more wildcat-like in the future. In the wild, natural selection should favour the wildcat’s innate adaptations, which will make the purest cats succeed and the hybrids fail. So, over time, the domestic cat genes in wild populations should be selected against and die out. If enough feral, domestic and hybridised cats are neutered or removed from places where the wildcat lives, it may allow the ‘Scottish tiger’ to recover naturally.
There is even tentative talk about the long-term future of the wildcat. If conservation projects in Scotland go well, could this animal be reintroduced to other parts of the UK? Maybe one day it will no longer feel appropriate calling it the ‘Scottish’ wildcat. Certainly, such a project would be expensive, ambitious, and potentially riddled with risks – but I think we should at least try. Chances are, even if these animals were successfully reintroduced to other parts of the UK, we would almost never actually see them due to their extreme shyness. But it would still be great simply knowing that they have returned to some of their former haunts a century and a half after they were exterminated there.
In the next British Wildlife of the Week, we’ll be looking at another Highland specialist and what is unquestionably Britain’s toughest bird – the ptarmigan.