Cairngorms Wildcats Project

 

The wildcat around the world

The wildcat Felis sylvestris has a broad geographical distribution covering much of Europe, Africa, and Asia. However, the three continents gave rise to different subspecies. The European subspecies is the largest and most heavily built, with a thicker more heavily marked coat, as well as a much thicker, blunt tail. The domestic cat originated from the African subspecies Felis sylvestris lybica and subsequently spread with humans throughout the world. The domestic cat is thought to have lived alongside humans in Scotland for over 2000 years.

Differences with the domestic cat

Wildcats are usually larger and more robust-looking than domestic cats, although castrated male domestic cats can become as large as wildcat toms. Internally, wildcats have shorter guts, larger skull capacity and longer leg bones. Scottish wildcats are also thought to have denser fur (up to 30,000 hairs per cm2 in winter!) than domestic cats, which are descended from wildcats from the warmer climes of Africa and the Middle East. There are differences in eye biology between the two, suggesting that wildcats have keener eyesight than domestic cats, both at night and during the day. Domestic cats can be very variable in their coat (pelage) markings but tabby forms can look similar to wildcats. Wildcats, however, have distinctive bushy ringed tails with blunt black tips. A total of seven key pelage markings are thought to allow wildcats to be differentiated from domestic cats and hybrids. See this diagram for more information on pelage markings.

History

Wildcats colonised Britain after the end of the Ice Age, over 9000 years ago, when there was still a land bridge to the Continent. They then followed the spread of suitable habitat and prey so that by the time Britain became an island, they occurred over its length and breadth. During their millennia of isolation, wildcats here are considered by some to have become a separate subspecies Felis sylvestris grampia. In recent centuries, habitat destruction, hunting for their fur and persecution saw their distribution contract. Wildcats were extinct in southern England by 1800, but survived in southern Scotland until 1849, northern England until 1853, and Wales until 1862. By the late 19th century wildcats in Britain were found only in remote parts of the Scottish Highlands but only in very low numbers. Numbers of wildcats began to recover after the First World War and they spread quickly across northern Scotland. It is thought that this recovery however came at the cost of increased hybridisation with domestic cats.

Measurements

Male Scottish wildcats are typically larger than females. Males weigh 3.8 to 7.3kg, with an average of 5.3kg, while females vary from 2.4 to 4.7kg, averaging 3.7kg. The length of males, from the head to tip of the tail, varies from 82-98cm but averages 89cm, while females range from 73-90cm, averaging 82 cm.

Habitat

Wildcats favour wooded landscapes with a mosaic of habitats especially semi-natural woodland, conifer plantation, scrub, moorland and pastureland. Although they have been recorded at over 800m above sea level, they are usually found below 500m.

Food

Rabbits (especially in the eastern Highlands), hares, voles and mice are overwhelmingly the principal food for wildcats although they will supplement this with a wider range of food including birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects and vegetation.

Social organisation

Solitary and territorial. Males have larger home ranges than females, and may overlap with more than one female. There is little overlap between home ranges of wildcats of the same sex. Home range size varies according to prey availability in the landscape. In the eastern Highlands where rabbits are relatively numerous, male home range size is typically around 4.6km2, with female home range size at around 1.8km2. In the western Highlands, where rabbit densities are lower, then average male home range size in winter was around 14.3km2, with females at 9km2.

The wildcat year

Between 2 and 4 kittens (although it can vary from 1-7) are born typically April-May in a den amongst rocks or in an abandoned fox earth, badger sett or rabbit warren. Births later in the year are possible if an earlier litter is lost. Their mother brings live prey to the den from about 3 weeks, and stops feeding with her milk at around 6-7 weeks. Kittens may follow their hunting mother around from 10 weeks old. Kittens start to leave their mothers from about 5 months old to find their own home ranges over the winter, but donít stop growing until about 10 months old. Some kittens may travel as far as 55km from their motherís home range. Longer winter fur develops during September. Both males and females can breed at 1 year old, although males in particular are unlikely to breed until they have established their own home range. Mating takes place in February to March and the gestation period averages 65 days. Once born, the kittens will have very little if any contact with their father. The adult winter coat is cast in favour of a shorter summer coat during the spring moult in April.

Legal status

Since 1988 the wildcat has been a protected species, listed on Schedule 5 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. It is therefore illegal to kill a wildcat except under licence. As a result of the speciesí vulnerable status across Europe, the wildcat is also a European Protected Species under the Habitats and Species Directive.

Back to Top