Tail length: 29 cm (2)|
Head and body length: 56 cm (2)
Adult males: 5 kg (2)|
Kittens: 100-160 g (2)
Adult females: 4 kg (2)
The Scottish subspecies Felis silvestris grampia is classified as Vulnerable (VU A1 de+ 2e) by the IUCN Red List 2000 (3). Fully protected in the UK under schedule 5 and 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Conservation (Natural Habitats etc) Regulations (1994). The European wildcat is listed under Appendix II of the Bern Convention, Appendix II of CITES and Annex IVa of the EC Habitats Directive (4).
The Scottish subspecies of the European wildcat, Felis silvestris grampia is a stocky cat, and can be distinguished from the domestic cat by its larger size, broader head and blunt, bushy and relatively short tail (5). It is fairly dark in colour with 'tabby' striping, which is more distinctive in juveniles than in adults (5).
In the UK the wildcat is now restricted to Scotland, north of a line drawn between Edinburgh and Glasgow; the current stronghold is northeast Scotland, but the species is uncommon (5). It seems that Scotland's 'industrial belt' is acting as a barrier to the spread of the wildcat to more southerly areas (7). The species was once widespread throughout Britain, and was common until around the end of the 15th century (5). Elsewhere, the species has a fairly broad distribution in Europe (5).
Like all small cats, wildcats are solitary and maintain territories, except when they are mating or with kittens (7). In Scotland, although generally active throughout the 24-hour period, most activity occurs between 4 pm and 2 am (7); individuals tend to rest during the day in scrub or young plantations. As with many mammals, in areas undisturbed by humans, wildcats become more active during the day (6). They are adept predators, feeding mainly on rodents, rabbits, hares and to a lesser extent birds (6). They are also known to scavenge rather than hunt, and may stockpile food, particularly during the winter months (6).
In Scotland, mating typically occurs in March (7) and a single litter is produced each year, unless the first litter is lost (7). Gestation takes up to 68 days, after which a litter of between 1 and 8 kittens are produced (7) in a den (5). The kittens are born with a full coat; their bright blue eyes open at around 10 days, and become golden yellow at around 5 months of age (5), around the time when the kittens become independent. Sexual maturity is reached at 10-12 months in females and 9-10 months in males. The male may bring food to the den, and may help to rear the kittens, although females have been known to drive males away aggressively when they have kittens (5). The female may help the kittens to develop hunting skills by waving her tail when at rest, causing the kittens to pounce on it (5). Wildcats are known to live to a maximum of 11 years in Scotland (7).
The status of the wildcat is unclear in Britain; crossbreeding with feral domesticated cats has made defining a true wildcat extremely difficult (7). It is currently legal to control feral cats, and so confusion between feral cats, wildcats and hybrids could have devastating effects (7). Habitat alteration and hunting pressure are thought to be responsible for the original decline in Britain (5). Wildcats were persecuted widely as vermin by gamekeepers, and the extent of current accidental killing is unclear. However, the most serious threat to the species at present appears to come from feral domestic cats, not only through hybridisation, but also from the spread of diseases such as feline leukaemia virus, which has already been detected in wildcats in both Scotland and France (7).
Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 it is illegal to kill or take a wildcat, or to damage or destroy their dens (2). However, it is clear that the confusion surrounding the issue of crossbreeding must be resolved if true Scottish wildcats are to be conserved. Current research is focusing on the issue of crossbreeding between wildcats and feral cats in order to establish the relationship between the two (6). It seems that genetically distinct wildcats do persist in remote parts of western and northern Scotland (6).
For more on this species see the IUCN Species Survival Commission Cat Specialist Group. European wildcat species account:
Information authenticated by Dr Pat Morris, with the support of the British Ecological Society
Hybridisation: cross-breeding with a different species.