How to Rewild

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Wildcats (Felis silvestris) are such close relatives of the House Cat (Felis catus) that for a little while in the 2000s, they were considered to be part of the same species. But Wildcats have lived across the UK (not just Scotland) for 12,000 years, whereas our pets have managed just 3000. Wildcats are described as the ‘Tiger of the Highlands’, and you might recognise them by their stripy Tabby cat patterning, with a puffy tail, crossed with thick black bars.

Pet cats have interbred with Wildcats so much that scientists believe there may be no purebred Scottish Wildcats left in the wild, although the species is genetically identical to the European Wildcat, so it isn’t endangered. These secretive animals and their hybrid relatives roam across Scotland, North of the Glasgow-Edinburgh belt and have a similar diet to foxes and domestic cats – rabbits where they can find them, otherwise rodents and birds.

There is a captive breeding population of purebred ‘Scottish’ Wildcats remaining in zoos and wildlife parks, with the first reintroduction taking place in 2023. Wildcats are ‘mesopredators’ that play a similar role in ecosystems to the widespread Red Fox – this means that reintroductions aren’t likely to have a significant impact on biodiversity. The creatures are almost impossible to see in the wild, so there’s not much potential for ecotourism, though their ‘cuteness’ could improve the public’s appetite for reintroduction programmes.

History of the Wildcat in the UK

Wildcat Extermination

The ‘Scottish’ Wildcat, present in Britain for 12,000 years, is a population of the European Wildcat (not a subspecies) which was once widespread across England, Scotland and Wales. However, habitat loss and hunting drove it out of England and Wales and, in the 19th and early 20th century gamekeepers and hunters wiped out many of these cats from Scotland, with loss of woodland habitat making life harder for the remaining animals.

Long classed as a separate subspecies of the European Wildcat, the Scottish Wildcat is now, with genetic analysis, thought to be a geographically-isolated population of the main species rather than a separate taxonomic unit (Wrigley 2020, Breitenmoser et al 2019, Mattucci et al 2016).  The animal is thought to have been present in Britain since the early Holocene, approximately 12,000 years ago (Langely & Yarden 1977). 

Once widespread in Scotland, these animals feature on the emblems of several Highland clans, including Clan MacIntosh. This clan’s motto ‘Na Bean Do’n Chat Gun Lamhainn’ translates into modern English as ‘Don’t touch a cat without a glove’ and communicates a fear of these bold creatures (MacDonald et al 2010, Wrigley 2020, Hobson 2012). This fear made it easier for gamekeepers, protecting Red Grouse, to justify culling Wildcats in the 19th and 20th centuries, to a point where the population was almost wiped out (Wrigley 2020).  A loss of Highlands woodland and hunting for fur or sport were also contributing factors in the decline of Scottish Wildcats (Macdonald et al 2010, Breitenmoser et al 2019).

Our ‘Scottish’ Wildcats were once found across Britain, but it is likely that they were already extinct in Southern England by the 16th century. They went extinct in Wales between 1800 and 1870 and their UK population reached its lowest ebb in 1914, before gamekeepers went off to fight in the First World War (Breitenmoser et al 2019, Wrigley 2020).

Wildcat Hybrids

The biggest threat to the survival of our native ‘Scottish’ Wildcat (historically called ‘Felis silvestris silvestris’) is interbreeding with feral house cats, which has likely been going on for thousands of years. By 2005, there were thought to be around 400 purebred animals remaining, but recent genetic analysis show that it’s likely all wild-living cats are now hybrids. 

We don’t know how many Wildcats are left in the wild, as the definition of a ‘Scottish Wildcat’ has become diluted by interbreeding. The situation has been further clouded by the recent discovery that ‘Wildcat fur patterns’ don’t always line up with purebred Wildcat genes.

The only remaining ‘purebred’ Scottish Wildcats still alive are in captivity, but even these are more closely related to the house cat than most of their European relatives. In the 2020s, it has become impossible to justify calling Scottish Wildcats a ‘subspecies’ when they are more accurately described as a collection of hybrids between the House Cat (Felis catus) and the European Wildcat (Felis silvestris) – see diagram below.

Genetic distribution Scottish Wildcats, with a distinct group of purebreeds at either end of the spectrum (adapted from Senn et al 2019).

Scottish wildcat genetics

The Scottish Wildcat Felis silvestris silvestris was thought to be a subspecies of the more widespread European Wildcat Felis silvestris. By 2005, interbreeding with domestic cats was thought to have caused the population of purebred or near-purebred animals to drop to ‘as low as 400 individuals’. This meant that the conservation status of the ‘subspecies’ was ‘critically endangered’, despite the species itself being listed as ‘Least Concern’ (Kitchener et al 2005). 

Hybridisation had been occurring for so long that, even as early as 2005 it was thought it might be impossible to find a ‘genetically pure’ cat in the wild – instead, there was a gradual slope of interrelatedness, with individuals at the ‘pure’ end still having some domestic cat (Felis catus) ancestry (Kitchener et al 2005).

A 2019 genetic analysis of SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms – corruptions in genetic code) of domestic cats, feral cats living in Scottish Wildcat habitat, wild-living, captive and historic specimen Scottish Wildcats found that the entire wild-living species was a hybrid spectrum between F. catus and F. silvestris silvestris; ”contemporary wild‐living cat populations within Scotland consist of a genetic continuum between Felis silvestris and Felis catus”. In constrast, historic specimens, and some remaining captive cats (largely taken into captivity in the 1960s and 70s) still showed the genetic grouping effect of a species (Senn et al 2019).

Kitchener et al (2005) proposed 7 key markings which, combined, were believed to be crucial in determining whether a Wildcat was sufficiently purebred to continue the species as distinct from the domestic cat. These 7 characteristics were derived by comparing the skeletal structure and intestine length (known traits of F. silvestris silvestris) with the patterns on its pelts. Key among these were the stripes rather than blotches along its back and broad tail with clear black bars (also Macdonald & Barrett 1993).

However, subsequent analysis of SNPs found that there was little correlation between pelt markings and the level of hybridisation at a genetic level. Senn et al (2019) stated that conservationists would have to decide whether pelt markings were more important than genetic distinctiveness, as these were not measuring the same thing. This is problematic for genetic purity as gamekeepers killing ‘feral cats’ are using fur patterns diagnostically, potentially wiping out individuals with genotypes close to the F. silvestris species that have ‘the wrong pattern’ (Breitenmoser et al 2019).

A slightly earlier study confirmed the gradual loss of genetic purity in F. sylvestris sylvestris by comparing it with other European and African Wildcats. This genetic analysis found that the European Wildcat F. sylvestris was a distinct genetic grouping, whereas the African Wildcat subspecies F. sylvestris libyca was almost indistinguishable from the domestic cat F. catus and the Scottish and Hungarian subspecies bridged the genetic gap between domestic cats and the main species (Mattucci et al 2016).

Due to interbreeding with feral house cats and the difficulty with genetic testing an entire wild population of cats, or establishing a definition of a ‘purebred Scottish Wildcat’, in 2019 the IUCN reasserted an earlier statement that ‘no reliable population estimate exists’ (Breitenmoser et al 2019).

In 2019, an IUCN report into the Scottish Wildcat described the animals as a ‘subpopulation’ rather than a ‘subspecies’ (Breitenmoser et al 2019). 

Wildcat Recovery & Reintroductions

After the Scottish Wildcat population hit a low point in 1914, increasing forest cover and the loss of gamekeepers in WWI helped the cats regain some of their former range. They spread back from NW Scotland across the whole of the mainland, although they’ve never reached south of the developed industrial belt. 

As conservationists have gradually realised that purebred Scottish Wildcats are unlikely to survive in a world full of house cats, they’ve switched focus to animals which look the same and play the same role in the ecosystem. 2022 will likely see the first release of Scottish Wildcats from the Saving Wildcats captive breeding programme.

After a low point in population at the start of the First World War, when Wildcats were confined to the NW corner of Scotland, the Highlands began to be reforested and the reduction in gamekeeper numbers saw Wildcats begin to recover. By 1946 they had recolonised most of their present range although they have been unable to disperse past the highly-developed central industrial belt. 

Forest cover in Scotland rose from about 5% in 1900 to 17% in 2000, although declines in rabbit populations due to Myxomatosis and RVHD have recently offset this effect, with road traffic casualties considered the largest impact on populations. There are now more Wildcats in the East of Scotland than the West, although population density remains fairly low and is declining and fragmenting in the West (Breitenmoser et al 2019). 

The main hurdle to purebreed-based reintroduction programmes is the presence of wild feral cats and domestic cats in and around potential Wildcat habitat. An education programme, catch and release neutering programme and pet neutering programme was introduced in Scotland, although just 3,180 pet cats were neutered (Breitenmoser et al 2019). 

Given that an estimated 21% of households in Scotland own cats (CATS 2021) and there were 90,000 households in Aberdeenshire alone in 2001 (Census 2001), that figure represents just 17% of the cats in one Scottish region. It only takes one cat to escape and restart the feral hybridisation process.

The Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan (2015-2019) took a more pragmatic approach to the problem, seeking to ‘protect a distinct group of cats that look like wildcats, but may not all be genetically pure wildcats’. Part of the programme sought to reduce the risk of gamekeepers shooting Wildcats, which is still a problem, given that control of feral cats is legal (Breitenmoser et al 2019). The programme also tried to determine the extent to which hybridisation was a problem and identified areas suitable for reintroductions.

Following the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan, Saving Wildcats is now implementing a rigorous captive breeding programme across over 25 wildlife parks and zoos, based on a stud book which was recommended by Breitenmoser et al (2019). This scheme will see the first cats reintroduced into the Scottish Highlands in 2022 (various pages, Saving Wildcats website).

Proposals for the reintroduction of Wildcats from Europe (which, as discussed above, are genetically identical to ‘purebred Scottish’ Wildcats) into England and Wales are currently being considered, with West Wales and South West England identified as areas of interest (MacPherson 2019).

Ecology of the Wildcat

Territory Size

Male Wildcats have the largest territories on average, but there are very big ranges in territory size depending on how much prey is available. Males range across 0.7-55km² (average 15km² in Europe) while females range across 0.7-53km² (average 5km² in Europe). These cats tend to avoid conflict, preferring to leave scent markings and prominent faeces to mark their territories on regular patrols.

Macdonald & Barrett (1993) assert that the range of the European Wildcat varies from 0.6km² to 3.5km² in size depending on prey density. However, according to Gil-Sánchez et al (2020), the minimum territory size in the Iberian peninsula was 1.7 to 13.7km², which is probably a more accurate figure given the advances in animal tracking over the past few decades. 

A Greek study described sex differences in territory sizes which lined up ‘with findings from other European populations’; males ranged across 1.9km² to 50.2km² while females had territories of 0.7km² to 13.9km² (Migili et al 2021). However, overlaps have been reported between males and female territories (Migli et al 2021). Kilshaw et al (2015) reported a mixed population of Scottish Wildcats and hybrids living at a density which equated to an approximate territory size of 1.5km², assuming no overlaps between individuals, though individual range size was not monitored.

Bastianelli et al (2021) studied Wildcat populations across a variety of European countries and that females ranged across an area from 0.69km² to 53km² in size (mean 4.6km²), while male ranges varied from 0.68km² to 55km² (mean 14.8km²).

Cats tend to practice avoidance by leaving scent markings rather than aggressively defending territories. They spray urine or leave anal and mouth gland secretions on vegetation and rocks or leave their droppings in prominent places (Macdonald & Barrett 1993).

Diet

Wildcats eat everything from small rodents to birds, amphibians, fish and baby deer, with grass taken for digestion, but they prefer to eat Rabbits. In Southern parts of Europe and other areas where Rabbit populations are high, these make up the majority of their diet. However, Northern populations like the Scottish Wildcat tend to mainly eat small rodents, as Rabbits are not frequently found in their habitat.

There are few studies of diet in the Scottish subpopulation of Wildcats – the most effective research comes in the form of two dissertations; a 2012 MSc thesis and a 1979 PhD thesis.

The MSc thesis, while well-designed, had a relatively small sample size, but the scats were DNA-tested to determine if they originated from Wildcats, which elevates its findings in terms of reliability. The most commonly eaten prey item were Voles (Microtinae spp.), followed by organic matter (grass and twigs, which aid digestion), then Mice and Rats (Murinae spp.), which, along with Birds (Avian spp.), and Hares and Rabbits (Lagomorph spp.) were each found in just 20% of scats. There were trace amounts of insects also found in some scats (Hobson 2012, UNPUBLISHED).

The PhD project found that rabbits were the preferred prey item of Wildcats, although it hasn’t been possible to access this paper to determine what methodology was used to arrive at this conclusion (Corbett 1979, UNPUBLISHED).

Grass is eaten to avoid formation of hair balls, while Wildcats may eat everything from birds to amphibians, fish, insects and, rarely, lambs and young Roe Deer (Macdonald & Barrett 1993).

An extensive meta-analysis of diet data for the European Wildcat across a variety of climates (Lozano et al 2006) found that climate and prey availability were the main determining factors in diet. Wildcats were described as consuming everything ‘from rodents to small ungulates’, and, while the only UK data informing this study came from the unpublished 1979 PhD, other studies from central and Eastern Europe makes this analysis relevant to the Scottish animals. 

As latitude increased, the diversity of species in the Wildcat diet generally decreased, and there was a strong correlation between the number of small rodents consumed and the number of rabbits. More rabbits meant fewer small rodents in the diet and vice versa, though perhaps this much is obvious as eating one thing means you must eat less of another. Less obvious is the fact that small rodents were more likely to be eaten as the diversity of the diet decreased. 

The patterns observed in this study were used to suggest that Wildcats prefer to eat rabbits, and tend to prey on them most where they are more abundant (in southern climates) but in their absence will shift to a rodent-heavy diet. This supports the data above, which shows that Wildcats ate rodents when hunting in areas of low rabbit population (Hobson 2012) but shifted to eating rabbits whenever they were available (Corbett 1979).

Habitat

Prey availability has the largest effect on where a Wildcat chooses to roam – they prefer areas with many small rodents and, ideally, Rabbits – their favourite prey. However, Wildcats are typically found along the edges of streams, and in mosaic woodland/meadow areas with a good mix of the two habitats. They avoid heathland, dense conifer plantations and sporting estates, and try to stay a safe distance from villages and roads.

Daniels et al (2001) carried out a radio-tracking study of movement pattern in a mixed population of feral cats and wildcats in Scotland. At least 4 individuals in the study were later confirmed as Wildcats from traffic mortality post-mortems. There was no significant difference in woodland use between cats with different coat patterns. Cats appeared to favour stream edges and woodland habitats, avoiding heather moors and pasture. Clear-felled woodland was neutral.

Silva et al (2013a) studied a population of Wildcats and hybrids in Scotland using baited camera traps in 3 study areas. Although they didn’t find a correlation between rabbit density and Wildcat habitat preference, this was likely due to their very low abundance across all areas. Areas of high rodent abundance were preferred, as were mosaic habitats, with patches of coniferous and mixed woodland and grassland. Wildcats were less likely to be detected further from watercourses, which lines up with the stream edge preference from Daniels et al (2001). Open areas of dwarf scrub with less cover and high density coniferous woodland were avoided. Distance to the nearest human settlement was measured, and a very slight preference for proximity to settlements was found, but results were of almost negligible significance.

In the same year, Silva et al (2013b) also performed an analysis of all Scottish habitats, accounting for Wildcat presence or absence to determine what might be the main factors influencing habitat prefererence. This study is more speculative, being based on a computer model and it did not account for the ability of Wildcats to disperse into habitats (i.e. proximity of neighbouring populations), although other confounding factors such as the presence of sporting estates and altitude of the area were used in the model. A high diversity of rodents and the presence of rabbits was associated with Wildcat presence, as were mosaic grassland/woodland habitats and smooth rises in elevation. Wildcats were less likely to be found in areas with sporting estates and heather moorland.

A well-designed study in Germany (Klar et al 2008) quantified the habitat preferences of radio-tracked Wildcats in Germany, with the resulting model tested again other data sources in the region for validity. Wildcats showed a strong preference for forest habitats, but the authors caution that, in Europe, forest are among the only safe wild refuges for these animals, which could skew the data. Edge habitats were also preferred, particularly the edges of forest/watercourses (per Daniels et al 2001, Silva et al 2013a) and forest/meadows. There was no mosaic forest habitat within the study area, only a continuous forested patch. Wildcats were less likely to use habitat within 900m of villages and 200m of roads and single houses. A strict separation of wild and feral cat territory was anecdotally observed by the authors, which might explain the lack of hybridisation in Europe.

Cats captured in winter had notably less bold markings than those captured in summer – this suggests a potential evolutionary adaption for snowy habitats (Daniels et al 2001).

Rewilding the Wildcat

Positive Impacts

Like all ‘mesopredators’, sitting near the top of the food web, Wildcats have a role to play in controlling the population of many species of smaller animals. They potentially reduce disease in these prey species by keeping down their populations. However, there has been little research into the impact of Wildcats on their environment, and scientists suggest their role is likely to be identical to that of Wildcat hybrids and probably even feral house cats (although these are more likely to be found living near to humans).

It is difficult to draw conclusions about the impact of Wildcats, as it was not possible to find any studies examining the difference between habitats with and without this species (i.e. BACI trials). This lack of data is a serious problem for conservationists planning reintroductions, as it prevents them from identifying the potential risks and benefits of projects.

There is a surprising lack of evidence for the ecological benefits of Wildcats, especially in reintroduction literature. 

For example, in a 17,000 word study of potential Wildcat reintroductions in England and Wales, MacPherson (2019) makes just one reference to the animal’s impact on its ecosystem – a paper (Ritchie et al 2012) which makes no mention of the Wildcat. In fact, the paper refers to the importance of apex predators in controlling the abundance of mesopredators (Wildcats are a mesopredator) and there are no apex predators in the proposed reintroduction areas.

MacPherson’s (2019) argument for Wildcats instead largely focuses on the moral and legal imperative, citing the Berne convention, which originally obliged the UK government ‘to encourage the reintroduction of native species of wild flora and fauna when this would contribute to the conservation of an endangered species’; but the Wildcat is classed as ‘Least Concern’, not ‘Endangered’.

Perhaps this lack of focus is due to the fact that Wildcats are more influenced by the ecosystem than the ecosystem is influenced by the cats. Lozano et al (2007) found that Wildcats were less likely to be found in areas with a higher ungulate population, because these areas harboured fewer rabbits. The Wildcats were not expected to influence ungulate populations, as these were controlled by hunting management strategies.

Cuckston (2017) explores conservationists’ idolisation of Wildcats and consequent demonisation of feral cats and hybrids when the animals inhabit the same ecological niche. The authors claim that conservationists appeal to philosophy, rather than science, when they simply say ferals and hybrids are ‘not supposed to be in that environment’. While Wildcats have been in the UK for 12,000 years (Langley & Yalden 1977), feral cats have lived alongside them for as long as 3000 years (Kitchener et al 2005).

While it is not directly related to Wildcats, Brashares et al (2010) describes the potential extirmation of cats on an island infested with rats. The rats negatively affected breeding birds, so the removal of cats would have a cascading effect on bird populations. It is possible that Wildcats play a similar role in the habitats they inhabit, by controlling rodent populations, but this is speculative, and there is no reason why feral cats wouldn’t achieve the same objectives.

High densities of prey species can lead to frequent breakouts of disease and their rapid transmission across regions. Predators are therefore able to reduce the burden of disease by thinning out prey populations (Brashares et al 2010). Wildcats appear to be very generalist in their diet, switching to whichever prey item is most available and most beneficial, which means that they do not have a large impact on any particular species, but instead have a minor impact on total prey animal populations (Apostolico et al 2016).

A study of the impact of various animals on seed dispersal of Juniper found that Red Fox had 778 seeds in 15 scats, Stone Marten had 53 seeds in 1 scat and the Wildcat had 2 seeds in 1 scat. The small sample size makes it hard to draw concrete conclusions, but this is not compelling evidence for their role as seed dispersers, as is suggested elsewhere (without direct evidence) in Curveira-Santos et al (2019), citing Rosalino et al (2010); a study of seed dispersal which does not mention Wildcats.

Neutral & Negative Impacts

It’s possible that reintroducing Wildcats will have no impact on overall ecology, as they sit in the same niche as Red Fox, competing with them for space, with very similar diets. As Red Foxes are already widespread, their population is not under threat, so replacing these animals with Wildcats is not necessarily a conservation failure.

However, increasing the number of ‘mesopredators’ without introducing a top level ‘apex’ predator to control their numbers might result in overkill of endangered prey birds and/or mammals. And even without successful hunts, the presence of cats in an area has been shown to reduce the health and breeding prospects of its prey, as they spend more time staying alert.

Well-designed studies (BACI trials) are needed to measure the impact of Wildcats on ecosystem health and biodiversity.

The potential ecotourism impact of Wildcat reintroductions is minimal – Kilshaw et al 2015 reported 0 Wildcat sightings by gamekeepers over an extended study period during which 13 individual cats were identified by camera traps. The animals is described here as ‘elusive’ and it is difficult to see how this behaviour could prove economically beneficial.

The Wildcat F. silvestris and Red Fox Vulpes vulpes have similar diets, with both species occupying a mesopredator niche and appearing to compete spatially for resources (Rodríguez et al 2020). The mesopredator trophic level is highly competitive and the removal of an individual mesopredator leads to a ‘sink’ effect which means the space is rapidly filled by another individual (Moreno-Pop et al 2015). Red Foxes have a generalist diet like Wildcats, eating rabbits, small rodents and birds, and are ‘widespread’ across the UK and Europe (Rodriguez et al 2020, Macdonald & Barrett 1993). Rodriguez et al (2020) anecdotally observed them attacking Wildcats and I have personally observed domestic cats (Felis catus) attacking Red Foxes on numerous occasions in Somerset, UK, which implies that these species compete spatially for resources. Thus, introducing a Wildcat into a new area is unlikely to change the biodiversity, but rather, will simply alter the species in the mesopredator niche. 

It should be considered that, in ecosystems already on the brink, a ‘mesocarnivore’ like a Wildcat might have a negative influence. A study in the Pyrennes mountains (Moreno-Opo et al 2015) where mesocarnivores were removed from a habitat – they targeted Wildcats but did not catch any, mainly catching Red Fox – found that an endangered bird species had much greater breeding success in the absence of mesocarnivore predation.

In a notable ecology books about trophic cascades, Brashares et al (2010) describe how the presence of a mesopredator such as a Wildcat in the absence of an apex predator like Wolves or Bears, can cause damage to lower trophic levels. The increased predation pressure and lack of mesopredator population control can lead to small animal and bird overkill, as seen in human settlements where domestic cats consume so much of the local wildlife population.

The study of a mixed population of feral cats and Wildcats by Daniels et al (2001) revealed few differences in their habitat preferences. Rabbit was also the third most common prey item of domestic cats in a UK survey conducted by Woods et al (2003), preceded only by Muridae spp., which lines up perfectly with the results of Wildcat scat analysis from Hobson (2012). The extreme similarity between Felis silvestris and Felis catus led to the latter species being briefly reclassified as a subspecies of the former (i.e. F. silvestris catus), although this reclassification has since been reversed (Driscoll et al 2009). These similarities, and the lack of direct evidence for Wildcats’ impact on ecosystems make it logical to look at the impacts of Felis catus and consider it as a mesopredator proxy for Felis silvestris:

F. catus has an incredibly varied diet, with over 207 species recorded in one Italian study, cited in Trouwborst et al (2020). However, their impacts extend beyond predation, as the fear of predation by cats, initiated by their appearance or scent has been shown to impact foraging and defence behaviours, impair stress responses and body condition and reduce reproductive investment and output (Loss & Marra 2017).

 

Body of the Wildcat

Weight

Wildcat weight varies a lot over time, depending on a range of factors, from pregnancy to diet, health and age. The typical maximum weight observed in Europe is 10kg for males and 6kg for females, although in Scotland it appears to be lower at 7kg for males and 5.6kg for females.

The maximum possible weight for a Wildcat is thought to be about 14-15kg and old records which exceed this number are not reliable.

According to Stefen (2015), the weight of the Wildcat varies substantially over time, as pregnancy, lactation, age, illness and seasonality (food availability) all significantly affect this metric. There is some sexual dimorphism in the Wildcat, with up to 10kg a standard maximum weight for males, though 14-15kg is considered to be a realistic record weight (18kg has been disputed). 6kg appears to be a standard maximum for females, though records above 7kg exist. 

Wrigley (2020) anecdotally  observes museum specimens decreasing in size over time, but Stefen (2015) suggests that this might be due to the way that samples were collected in the past (i.e. sampling bias). However, Stefen (2015) does find that the weight of male Wildcat specimens has significantly decreased over time and suggests that this is due to climate change; an adaptation seen in other animals.

Macdonald & Barrett (1993) state that Wildcats weigh between 1.6kg and 8kg, with Scottish Wildcats weighing from 2.5-7.1kg. They confirm the sexual dimorphism observed by Stefen (2015), with mature females weighing up to 5.6kg and males up to 7.1kg.

Size

Adult females are 73-90cm long from nose to tail tip, and adult males are slightly larger at 82-98cm. Tails are about 27cm long on average and Wildcats are characterised by rounder skulls, with shorter intestines than a House Cat (though you might lose an eye if you rely on these features when identifying one).

In Europe, Wildcats measure 48-68cm from the tip of the nose to the base of the tail, with sexual dimorphism making males approximately 5cm longer than females at maximum size. Tails add a further 21-38.5cm to the length (Macdonald & Barrett 1993). 

Breitenmoser et al (2019) report sizes for Scottish animals measured from nose to tail tip, with correspondingly larger sizes – males 82.3cm to 98.1cm and females 73cm to 89.5cm. Tail lengths are reported as averaging 27cm. 

The length of the intestine has long been diagnostic of ‘Scottish’ Wildcats, being relatively shorter than that of Domestic Cats (though a ratio or value does not appear to be specified). A cranial index – the ratio of skull width to length – of less than 2.75 is also considered diagnostic (Kitchener et al 2005).

Age

In relatively wild habitats with few roads, Wildcats may live for an average of 7 years, and up to at least 10 years old, although a lifespan of 19 years has been recorded in captivity. However, roads have a huge impact on survival rates, with 30-40% of Wildcats living beside a motorway dying every year and in Scotland, only 7% of animals survive their 6th year.

Reintroduction programmes have to consider the density of roads when planning releases, as 57% of European Wildcats are estimated to die from traffic accidents. However, there may still be issues with management techniques (night shooting) used on sporting estates in Scotland, which could contribute to early deaths in our Wildcat population.

Road deaths have a huge impact on Wildcats, and MacPherson (2019) referred to this as a key factor affecting the success rates of Wildcat reintroduction programmes. Bastianelli et al (2021) estimated that, across Europe, 57% of Wildcat deaths were caused by roadkill – early death was so significant in one study of Wildcat ecology that 29% of study animals were given post mortems (Daniels et al 2001). An increase in motorway or ‘primary’ road length of 1km within a 1km² area of Wildcat territory increases the risk of death 9x from roadkill (Bastianelli et al 2021). 

The maximum lifespan of a Wildcat in captivity has been recorded as 19 years, but 30-40% of Wildcats living near motorways were killed every year whereas the average survival rates of European Wildcats in areas with few roads is 91% although males tended to live shorter lives than females. In the wild, animals can live up to at least 10 years of age (Stefano et al 2020). Extrapolating from Stefano’s results, with an estimated 91% survival rate per year in pristine habitats, the average wild animal would be expected to live for approximately 7 years. However, in Scotland just 7% of Wildcats lived longer than 6 years in the wild (Breitenmoser et al 2019).

At least into the 2010s, gamekeepers in Scotland were still shooting cats that were identified by their eye-shine at night (‘lamping’), which perhaps explains the low density of Wildcats in areas with sporting estates (Breitenmoser et al 2019). Macdonald & Barrett (1993) cited ‘persecution’ as one of the main causes of death in Scotland.

Reproduction

Wildcats build a den in an abandoned burrow, building or under a natural shelter like a fallen tree. They mate in Winter, with a 65 day pregnancy, giving birth in April or May. From 1-8 kittens may be born, but 3-4 is typical – they are weaned by 5 months, leaving home shortly after and becoming fertile by the age of 1.

Abandoned burrows, farm buildings, rock piles and fallen trees are all suitable places for a Wildcat den (various sources, cited in Breitenmoser et al 2019). 

Wildcats reach sexual maturity at one year old and mate between January and March, with a gestation period of 63-69 days and the litter born in April to May . An average of 3-4 kittens are born, but a range of between 1 and 8 is possible (Macdonald & Barrett 1993, Breitenmoser et al 2019). If the first pregnancy is lost, the females may become fertile again at the end of May, or start of June (Breitenmoser et al 2019). 

 Kittens are weaned at 2-5 months, leaving their parents’ territory at 5-6 months old (Macdonald & Barrett 1993, Breitenmoser et al 2019).

References

Anile, Stefano, et al. “Record of a 10-year old European Wildcat Felis silvestris silvestris Schreber, 1777 (Mammalia: Carnivora: Felidae) from Mt. Etna, Sicily, Italy.” Journal of Threatened Taxa 12.2 (2020): 15272-15275.

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Apostolico, Fabiola, et al. “Long-term changes in diet and trophic niche of the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) in Italy.” Mammal Research 61.2 (2016): 109-119.

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Bastianelli, Matteo Luca, et al. “Survival and cause-specific mortality of European wildcat (Felis silvestris) across Europe.” Biological Conservation 261 (2021): 109239.

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Brashares, Justin S., et al. “Ecological and conservation implications of mesopredator release.” Trophic cascades: predators, prey, and the changing dynamics of nature (2010): 221-240.

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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).

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CATS (Cats and Their Stats) 2020 Scotland (2020).

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