The Scottish wildcat is one of the most threatened mammals in the world. Although its count can be tricky, the number of the so-called ‘pure origin’ wildcats that live in the nature is about a 100; 400 if those in captivity are counted. Having been present for 2 million years, it is not until the last 150 years that their species has greatly reduced.
The ‘Highlands tiger’: a species established in Northwest Scotland for 2 million years
It belongs to the subspecies ‘Felis silvestris grampie’. It is widely different from our domestic cats: its head is wide and flat, the tip of their ears is round, its 29 cm tale is dense, rounded and hooped with black rings and its brown fur has black stripes. With a total length of nearly 56 cm and a weight between 5 and 7 kg for the males and 4 kg for the females, they are intimidating.
Wildcats are solitary and nocturnal creatures. They live in the Northwest Scottish forests, the Highlands. These low altitude mountains are covered with sheep pastures. Fearful as they are, they do not approach humans even though they can attack when they feel threatened. At sunrise and sunset, they hunt little mammals (rodents or hares), as well as fish, frogs and reptiles, since they are not afraid of water.
In a natural habitat, their life expectancy is 8 years, if they live in captivity, 15. This difference can be explained by natural causes (crossbreeding, diseases) but is also intensified by the human action (hunting, deforestation). Currently, in Great-Britain, the latter is only present in the Highlands. Hence, they were granted a protection status since 1981.
An existence mainly threatened by crossbreeding
Wildcats have partly occupied lands adjacent to Scottish villages. Therefore, they have encountered stray domestic cats. These encounters have originated deadly illness transmissions by the latter, such as leukemia or feline coronavirus.
Unlike domestic cats, the Scottish wildcat has only one reproductive cycle per year. Due to the cross-mate, the species has lost some main characteristics. Nowadays the scientific community thinks that ‘pure’ wildcats have at least one hybrid or domestic bloodline. Crossbreeding has been limited thanks to isolation of wildcats in their territory from the rest of Europe.
Man’s role for the modification of their habitat and their tracking
The Scottish Highlands are home to Caledonian forests, which are mainly formed by pine trees, oaks and birch trees. Wildcats form their lairs in the moss and scrublands and they occupy an average territory of 6 km², although they can even spread up to 25 km². Massive deforestation in Northwest Scotland was originated by agricultural implantation and pasture. The objective was to reduce wolf population by burning the forests and by commercial silviculture (fuel). Consequently, felines have been thrown out from their territories as well as the pray they hunt.
The Scottish wildcat was unfairly considered as man killers until the middle of the 20th century. Despite being present near livestock herds, they hardly attack them. Nonetheless, the number of hunting traps against them is multiplying and poachers hunt them because of their thick fur. On the other hand, technology also plays its part: car accidents against these mammals have multiplied.
Unusual associative initiatives
Highland Titles is an association whose wish is to ‘rewild’ the Highlands, i.e., restore the natural landscape. In order to achieve this, they replant trees (original ones only represent 1% of the whole forest), plant wild flowers so that the bee population grows, and they reintroduce threatened local fauna (beavers, voles, dragonflies, Osprey, Chequered skippers…).
In order to be able to finance this preservation operations, the association has acquired two nature reserves: Glencoe Wood and Mountain View. It proposes acquiring pieces of land of 1,10,100 or 1000 square feet (1 m² = approximatively 10 sq ft) at a certain price. Offered as ‘the most responsible present in the world’, its purchase gives you in exchange the designation of the honorary title of ‘Lord, Laird or Lady’. The buyer has a personal right in its parcel, but the association is the landowner and manages the piece of land. Their community is formed currently by almost 100 000 members.
The association Wildcat Haven collaborates with the former. Its work consists on capturing hybrid and stray cats to sterilize and release them later. Pure wildcats are equipped with a radio-collar that transmits all useful information about their environment. In order to attract and localize them, the association has used camera traps. Finally, a wooden enclosure with minimal human presence gives shelter to orphaned kittens and injured cats.
In terms of finance, the association proposes adopting a wildcat or buying a piece of land as well. On a local scale, land owners can engage themselves in the creation and preservation of adapted forests zones to offer cats the chance to flourish.
The protection of this threatened wild species can imply numerous indirect stakeholders through these disguised donatives. The originality of these purchases must make tourists talk about them as life-long holiday memories.
The Scottish wildcat is different to the European wildcat, even though the debate about its classification is still a current issue. The European wildcat is still present in France. It is located in 44 departments, being the Vosges and the Jura the most important ones. As every wild species is now exposed to human activity, mankind must acquire enough knowledge about the species to make modern needs and wildcat preservation compatible.