“Touch not the cat [without] a glove”
by Roo Campbell
The Scottish wildcat is Britain’s last remaining native felid. It is not actually a unique species, but is, by some margin, the most northerly population of the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris). As such, our wildcat is adapted to an environment that can be radically different from the environment inhabited by its relatives further south. Once found throughout mainland Britain, it would have been an important predator of small mammals, while its fierce reputation meant it was also held in high cultural regard. The wildcat has featured on clan crests for example, with the Clan Chattan confederation using the wildcat alongside the rather threatening motto of “Touch not the cat [without] a glove”. This advice still applies today. More on that below…
When I first began working with the wildcat in Scotland, we knew relatively little about their status ecology. Earlier work showed that the wildcats were hybridising extensively with domestic cats and we were worried that this was occurring across their range in northern Scotland. I joined the wildcat story just as technologies such as digital camera traps and miniature GPS devices were being introduced and I and colleagues have been able to make use of these tools to reveal in ever greater detail the status and ecology of this species.
Many months of hard work setting up camera traps showed us where cats were and which looked like wildcats. This revealed wherever we went that cats showing characteristics of hybrids far outnumbered anything that looked like a wildcat. The next step was to capture some of these, both for genetic screening and so we could attach GPS collars to find out how they used the landscape. Technology is useful, but its application isn’t necessarily easy. Despite the help of a veterinary scientist and an assistant, my first successful live-capture of a cat didn’t go quite as planned. The actual capture of a big male (a hybrid as it happens) went smoothly enough with minimal stress on the animal. But the very light dosage of sedative we administered turned out to be too light: mid-procedure, he awoke. My assistant, gloveless despite the advice of the Clan Chattan, gamely held on to the cat until we could secure him back into a transfer cage, her efforts rewarded with a nasty bite to the hand. A visit to the doctor could wait and we completed our task, in the end opening the cage door to watch a now collared cat explode into the night. The five months of data we gained from that cat before the collar fell off revealed how he travelled through forestry and farmland, covering around 20,000 ha of territory in a month in search of females and spending his days denning in a farmyard.
Over the years I’ve had the rare and delightful encounter with these elusive animals and worked with many dedicated colleagues to protect them. Along the way we have learned that the wildcats has been lost from the far north of Scotland and that everywhere else our worst fears have been confirmed, with no individual found that doesn’t show some history of hybridisation in its genetic code. It looks like this hybridisation process really took off sometime between the 1950s and 1980s and now there are too few remaining for the wildcat to survive in Scotland without some outside help. Luckily there is a captive population sourced before hybridisation took hold and there is a plan, led by colleagues at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, to boost the population from captive stock. With funding and support from all sides, from cat owners to gamekeepers, there is hope for the wildcat yet.
Did you know that our Mammal Mapper app lets you input sightings of wildcats, domestic cats and hybrids? If you’re up in Scotland in wildcat territory, why not download the app and give it a go?! You can find out more about how to distinguish between wildcats and domestic cats here.
Go to our National Mammal Week page to find out what’s happening each day this Mammal Week! Make sure you are following #MammalWeek and #MammalsMatter and keeping an eye on our social media feeds for all things Mammal Week related. You wouldn’t want to miss out on our prizes would you?!