A hotly-contested dispute over the definition of a ‘Scottish Wildcat’ has distracted us from the animal’s extinction, deflecting attention from great science on both sides of the aisle.
The Birth of the Frankencat
A few years ago, The Guardian published a scathing article, which blasted NatureScot (then called ‘Scottish National Heritage’) for its approach to saving the Scottish Wildcat. The author seemed fixated on the notion of preserving ‘genetic purity’, despite the impracticalities of that approach. However, this argument for purity was given weight by Wildcat Haven – a project which has ‘secured 1000 square miles’ of habitat on the Scottish Ardnamurchan peninsula.
NatureScot was, the 2014 article claimed, preserving a ‘Frankenstein version’ of the Wildcat that ‘resembles a wildcat but… certainly isn’t the Scottish wildcat’. The drama playing out in Scotland over the past few years in the Wildcat community is a distraction from the fact that this beautiful animal has, arguably, just gone extinct in the UK.
What is a Scottish Wildcat?
Just to get this out of the way, a ‘Scottish Wildcat’ is not a scientifically-recognised thing. There are Wildcats in Scotland, and for many years we believed that these were a subspecies of the European Wildcat (3). But recent genetics research (more info in our Guide to the Wildcat) has repeatedly shown that purebred ‘Scottish’ Wildcats are genetically indistinguishable from their European relatives (6, 8). The two groups are so clearly identical that reintroduction schemes with European animals have even been proposed in England and Wales (5).
Threats to the Scottish Wildcat
The European Wildcat’s conservation status is ‘Least Concern’, but, like some other organisations, Wildcat Haven still claims ‘The Scottish Wildcat is the world’s rarest cat’ at the top of its website. Understandably, if you’re trying to advertise a charity, it helps to have an endangered mascot, but this claim, and others like it, are in danger of diverting donations from real endangered species.
And, to be honest, this is all pretty unfortunate, as what Wildcat Haven is doing – neutering feral cats and creating a ‘safe zone’ for Wildcats – is a good model for how the species’ genes could be preserved into the future. There are three main threats to Wildcats’ future survival:
- Interbreeding with house cats and their feral relatives
- Road traffic accidents
- Game management on shooting estates
Interbreeding: Arise, Frankencats!
Back in 2005, scientists still believed that there were some remaining purebred cats out there (3). But a huge study of Wildcat DNA in 2019 found that every wild animal sampled fell somewhere along the spectrum between House Cat and Wildcat; ‘hybrids’ or ‘Frankensteins’ (8). The few remaining purebred animals lived in zoos and wildlife parks, and a 2016 study showed that these individuals fell comfortably within the genetic range of European Wildcats (6).
So, the Wildcat, without anyone really noticing, appears to have gone extinct in the UK, in the wild at least, leaving only a roaming population of similar-looking hybrids. However, interbreeding is not as much of a problem in Europe – their genetics are much more distinct (6). I’ve seen a few studies that suggest European territories of House Cats and Wildcats don’t overlap in some areas (7, 4). One possibility is that, with bigger predators on the loose in certain European countries, domestic cats are less likely to risk straying into the wild.
Roadkill: Losing Wildcats to Traffic
If it weren’t for the interbreeding, we’d also be really worried about traffic – a recent European study found that 57% of Wildcat deaths were on the roads (1). Animals living by a motorway were 30-40% likely to die in any one year (1). With each cat living nine lives, that would mean they lasted 27 years on average (although I don’t think the Maths works like that…).
Sporting Estates: A Tricky Question
Game management is a tricky subject – scientists issued very clear guidance in 2005 about what a ‘true’ Scottish Wildcat looked like (3). The only problem is, the 2019 genetics study found that this guidance wasn’t necessarily connected to the animal’s level of genetic ‘purity’ (8). And herein lies the issue – when exterminating or capturing hybrid cats on their land, how are gamekeepers meant to tell how ‘pure’ their genes are? The only way to know for certain is a DNA test, or a post mortem, neither of which are practical solutions (8).
Further complicating this issue is the practice of ‘lamping’ – shooting cats and other nuisance creatures by catching their eyes in a bright spotlight at night. This makes discriminating between even feral cats and Wildcats difficult. In 2019, the IUCN recognised the work done by Cairngorms Wildcat Project to discourage this practice and the use of snares (2).
Wildcat Haven’s Scientific Approach
So, where have we ended up? Well, we have a population of ‘Frankenstein’ cats in the wild which range in appearance from ‘Highland Tiger’ to black and white ferals. But one of the best strategies for tackling this problem is the very solution that Wildcat Haven is using. Capturing, neutering and then re-releasing feral cats effectively creates an army of non-breeding cat drones which will insulate Wildcat territories. A similar strategy has been proposed to fight mosquitos – releasing millions of ‘genetically-neutered’ insects that reduce the breeding prospects of their peers.
However, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust estimates that there are 130,000 feral cats in Scotland alone. A Scottish neutering programme funded by Cats Protection only managed to tackle 3,180 cats, and, given the relatively short lifespan of wild-living cats and their unlimited ability to travel, at a national scale this idea just seems impractical.
Why Are We Protecting Wildcats?
So how do we keep the ‘Highland Tiger’ alive? It seems like Wildcat Haven is on the right track, but some of their messaging, and approaches to PR risk alienating potential donors. Their insistence on genetic purity might work at a small scale, but on a national level, perhaps it’s better to realise that hybrids which fit the same niche in an ecosystem will be fine.
We need to work out why we’re protecting these animals – if it’s to keep the species genetically pure then this will only work at a local level. If the priority is rewilding ecosystems to their natural state, with all the benefits that come with this, then hybrids and the NatureScot approach seems to be more practical at scale.
I think there’s a strong case for a mixed approach, with small scale ‘purebred’ breeding programmes alongside national ‘Frankenstein’ policies, which are more workable and maintain the presence of Wildcat-like animals across its former range.
Bastianelli, Matteo Luca, et al. “Survival and cause-specific mortality of European wildcat (Felis silvestris) across Europe.” Biological Conservation 261 (2021): 109239.
Breitenmoser, Urs, Tabea Lanz, and Christine Breitenmoser-Würsten. “Conservation of the wildcat (Felis silvestris) in Scotland: Review of the conservation status and assessment of conservation activities.” IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group.[Google Scholar] (2019).
Kitchener, Andrew C., et al. “A diagnosis for the Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris): a tool for conservation action for a critically-endangered felid.” Animal Conservation forum. Vol. 8. No. 3. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Klar, Nina, et al. “Habitat selection models for European wildcat conservation.” Biological Conservation 141.1 (2008): 308-319.
MacPherson, Jenny. “A preliminary feasibility assessment for the reintroduction of the European wildcat to England and Wales.” Vincent Wildlife Trust (2019) PDF Online.
Mattucci, Federica, et al. “European wildcat populations are subdivided into five main biogeographic groups: consequences of Pleistocene climate changes or recent anthropogenic fragmentation?.” Ecology and evolution 6.1 (2016): 3-22.
Rodríguez, Alberto, et al. “Spatial segregation between red foxes (Vulpes vulpes), European wildcats (Felis silvestris) and domestic cats (Felis catus) in pastures in a livestock area of Northern Spain.” Diversity 12.7 (2020): 268.
Senn, Helen V., et al. “Distinguishing the victim from the threat: SNP‐based methods reveal the extent of introgressive hybridization between wildcats and domestic cats in Scotland and inform future in situ and ex situ management options for species restoration.” Evolutionary applications 12.3 (2019): 399-414.
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