Scottish wildcat

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Scottish wildcat
Scottish wildcat & kitten.jpg
CITES Appendix II (CITES)[2]
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Feliformia
Family: Felidae
Subfamily: Felinae
Genus: Felis
F. s. grampia
Trinomial name
Felis silvestris grampia
Miller, 1907
  • Felis silvestris silvestris Schreber, 1777
  • Felis grampia Miller 1907

The Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia), or Highlands tiger, is a dark coloured subspecies of the European wildcat native to Scotland. Its range previously also included England and Wales, but it became extinct in these areas, as well as in southern Scotland, within the last 150 years. Scottish wildcat numbers have been in steady decline since the turn of the century.[3][4] As of summer 2018, there are 35 known, Scottish wildcats left in the wild.[5]

The Scottish wildcat population is threatened primarily by hybridization with domestic cats.[6] It is the only wild feline left on the island of Great Britain.[7] It may be the case that there are no Scottish wildcats left in existence which do not possess some kind of domestic ancestry.


In its original classification in 1907, the Scottish wildcat was listed as a full species, Felis grampia.[8] However, it was soon revised to a subspecies, Felis silvestris grampia, in 1912.[8] There is continuing uncertainty about the relation of the Scottish wildcat to other European wildcats; The Cat Classification Task Force proposes that it is indistinguishable from the European wildcat,[9] while others suggest that all the wildcat subspecies are indistinct and should be treated as a single species.[8] However, the subspecies is still recognized as a valid independent subspecies of the wildcat by the Integrated Taxonomic Information System.[10] The subspecies name grampia likely comes from the name of a Scottish mountain range, the Grampian Mountains; the describer of the species did not explicitly state its etymology.[11]


Males are 3.77–7.26 kg (8.3–16.0 lb), while females are smaller at 2.35–4.68 kg (5.2–10.3 lb).[12] Scottish wildcats can be distinguished from domestic cats by their heavier, more robust skulls.[13] They also have larger body size and shorter intestines.[13] Scottish wildcats also have longer limb-bones than domestic cats.[13] Their coats have distinctly solid-striped tabby patterning without white feet.[7] Their tails are thick, ringed, black at the tips, blunt, and don't have a stripe from the base to the tip.[7] While domestic cats may have the following coloration or patterns, they are unlikely to be found in wildcats: white chins, striped cheeks, spotted undersides, striped hind legs, colored backs of ears, white on flanks, or white on backs.[7] Their ears are capable of 180° rotation.[12] They can live at least 15 years in captivity, but may only live 2–3 years in the wild due to car strikes and disease from feral cats.[14][15]


The Scottish wildcat has been present in Britain since the early Holocene, when the British Isles were connected to continental Europe via the Doggerland.[16] It was once common throughout all of Britain.[17] Wildcats were frequently killed to protect game species of bird, and they were considered vermin.[18] Wildcats were likely extirpated from Southern England during the 16th century, and extirpated from Northern England and Wales by 1880.[19]

Scottish wildcats are found in colder, drier parts of Scotland that are less suitable for farming.[13] Preferred habitat includes woodland and shrubland,[20] generally staying below 800m elevations.[3] Their current distribution includes Cairngorms, the Black Isle, Aberdeenshire, Angus Glens and Ardnamurchan.[12]


Breeding occurs from January to March. After a gestation period of 63–68 days, females give birth to a litter of kittens.[12] Kittens are born in a den, which can be within a cairn, brush piles, and under tree roots.[20][15] Kittens do not open their eyes until 10–13 days old; though their eyes are initially blue, they change to green around seven weeks of age. Kittens begin learning how to hunt at 10–12 weeks old, and are fully weaned by 14 weeks old.[12] A second estrous can occur at the end of lactation, with the second litter of the year born in August.[21] Although females do give birth in winter, it is at a much lower frequency than in spring or summer.[22] Kittens born in the winter have much higher likelihood of dying from starvation; in 1975–1978, all monitored kittens born in winter starved.[20] The average litter size for the wildcat is 4.3, but litters can have as few as 1 or as many as 8 kittens.[22][12] Both males and females reach sexual maturity before one year of age.[21] Scottish wildcats are solitary, with kittens leaving their mothers around six months of age.[15][20][23]

Hunting and behavior[edit]

Wildcats are mainly crepuscular or nocturnal, though they may hunt at all hours during the winter, when food is scarce.[12] A main prey source for wildcats is rabbits, particularly young or ill individuals.[20] Wildcats also consume voles, mice, hares,[15] as well as birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects; they may also scavenge fresh roadkill.[24] Any uneaten remnants of a kill will be buried in a cache to save for later.[12] Wildcats will defend good hunting habitat from other wildcats using scent marking through their scat.[20] Territory sizes can exceed 25 km2 (9.7 sq mi), although they are much smaller, 0.3–6 km2 (0.12–2.32 sq mi), in areas of high prey density.[15][12] Adult cats are able to maintain larger territories than juveniles.[20] While male wildcats' ranges sometimes overlap with female ranges, female ranges do not overlap.[20] Wildcats do not appear to be active when snowfall exceeds 10 centimetres (3.9 in), which may be hard for them to move through.[25]


The Scottish wildcat was given protected status under the United Kingdom's Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.[7] While the subspecies will need conservation action to maintain a viable population, this is made difficult by its hybridization with domestic cats.[7] It is likely that all wildcats today have at least some domestic cat ancestry.[26] Domestic cats also transmit diseases to the wildcat, including feline calicivirus, feline coronavirus, feline foamy virus, and the fatal feline leukemia virus.[8] In the wild, efforts to conserve wildcats include neutering feral cats and euthanizing diseased feral cats to prevent hybridization and spread of disease.[27] Other continued threats to the wildcat include habitat loss and hunting.[12] While Scottish wildcats are legally protected in the United Kingdom, feral cats can be killed throughout the year.[28] Due to their similarity, it is possible that people who mean to kill feral, domesticated cats may end up harming the protected wildcat instead.

In 2007, the Scottish wildcat was listed in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan as a priority species.[29] Introduced in 2013, the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan, owned by the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Group (SWCAG) and coordinated by Scottish Natural Heritage, set national action priorities, and helps define agency responsibilities and funding priorities for the group's conservation efforts through 2019.[30] In 2014, the project researched nine potential action areas, settling on six considered having the highest likelihood of conservation success, with work planned beginning in 2015: Morvern, Strathpeffer, Strathbogie, Strathavon, Dulnain and The Angus Glens.[31] Later, the official efforts fell under the auspices of Scottish Wildcat Action, a coalition including government and academic institutions, with an updated 2018 list of five priority areas: Strathbogie, Angus Glens, Northern Strathspey, Morvern and Strathpeffer.[32]

In July 2014, an area of the remote and largely undisturbed Ardnamurchan peninsula was designated a Scottish wildcat sanctuary, a project of The Aspinall Foundation and scientist Dr. Paul O'Donoghue. Part of their effort involves neutering domestic cats to prevent breeding with wildcats.[31]

Conservation breeding[edit]

A captive breeding program exists in Scotland, using individuals that pass genetic and morphological tests to be considered wildcats with minimal hybridization.[23] Six kittens were born at the Highland Wildlife Park in 2015.[23] From 2011 to 2016, there have been 15 surviving wildcat kittens born at the Highland Wildlife Park.[33] The breeding program involves other facilities, including the Alladale Wilderness Reserve, Chester Zoo, British Wildlife Centre, Port Lympne Wild Animal Park, and the Aigas Field Centre.[33][34][14] As of December 2016, around 80 Scottish wildcats were in captivity.[35] The captive breeding program has drawn criticism from animal-rights organizations like Captive Animals Protection Society, which stated that the breeding program has "little to do with conservation and everything to do with these zoos stocking their cages".[36]

Conservation groups' political controversy[edit]

Within the conservation community, there are some political divides over proper actions and strategies. For example, in 2014, the Scottish Wildcat Association and Wildcat Haven challenged the efforts of Scottish Natural Heritage.[37] A few years later, Scottish Wildcat Action - the official government group - was defending itself from what it called unfair criticism by Wildcat Haven.[38]

In culture[edit]

The wildcat is traditionally an icon of Scottish wilderness.[12] The wildcat or its hybrid is the likely inspiration of the mythological Scottish creature, Cat sìth.[12] The Scottish wildcat has been a symbol of Clan Chattan, a Scottish clan, since the 13th century.[39] Most of the member clans of Clan Chattan have the wildcat on their crest badges, and their motto is "Touch not the cat bot a glove,"– "bot" meaning "without."[39] The motto is a reference to the ferocity of wildcats. Clan Chattan has participated in wildcat conservation efforts since 2010.[39]

In 2010, as part of the International Year of Biodiversity, Royal Mail issued a series of ten stamps celebrating at-risk mammals, one of which was for the wildcat.[40][41]


  1. ^ Yamaguchi, N.; Kitchener, A.; Driscoll, C.; Nussberger, B. (2015). "Felis silvestris". The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2015: e.T60354712A50652361. Recent estimates have varied between 1,000 and 4,000 (compared to 1.2 million feral cats in Britain), but as few as 400 cats which meet morphological and genetic criteria for being the furthest from the domestic group may survive (Macdonald et al. 2004, Battersby 2005, Kitchener et al. 2005, Macdonald et al. 2010). If so, this population would be Critically Endangered (Kitchener et al. 2005).
  2. ^ "CITES Appendices I, II, and III". Felidae spp. Except the species included in Appendix I. Excludes specimens of the domesticated form, which are not subject to the provisions of the Convention.
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  8. ^ a b c d Macdonald, D. W., Yamaguchi, N., Kitchener, A. C., Daniels, M., Kilshaw, K., & Driscoll, C. (2010). Reversing cryptic extinction: the history, present and future of the Scottish Wildcat. The Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, 471-492.
  9. ^ Kitchener, A. C.; Breitenmoser-Würsten, C.; Eizirik, E.; Gentry, A.; Werdelin, L.; Wilting, A.; Yamaguchi, N.; Abramov, A. V.; Christiansen, P. (2017). "A revised taxonomy of the Felidae: The final report of the Cat Classification Task Force of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group" (PDF). Cat News. Special Issue 11.
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  26. ^ Beaumont, M., Barratt, E. M., Gottelli, D., Kitchener, A. C., Daniels, M. J., Pritchard, J. K., & Bruford, M. W. (2001). Genetic diversity and introgression in the Scottish wildcat. Molecular Ecology, 10(2), 319-336.
  27. ^ Keane, Kevin (22 February 2017). "Feral cats neutered to protect rare Scottish wildcats". BBC News. London. Retrieved 9 May 2017.
  28. ^ Aebischer,N.J., Davey,P.D. & Kingdon,N.G. (2011). National Gamebag Census: Mammal Trends to 2009. Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, Fordingbridge (
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  34. ^ "Video: Chester Zoo carnivore experts breed Britain's rarest mammal". Chester Zoo. 15 July 2016. Retrieved 9 May 2017.
  35. ^ Barclay, David (2 December 2016). "Scottish wildcat conservation breeding for release a lifeline for the species?". Scottish Wildcat Action. Retrieved 9 May 2017.
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  37. ^ McKenna, Kevin (2014-11-23). "Why the Scottish wildcat is threatened by its 'saviour' | Kevin McKenna". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-11-26.
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  40. ^ "Stamp celebrates Highland tiger". 2010-04-13. Retrieved 2018-11-28.
  41. ^ "Mammals (Action for Species 4) (2010) : Collect GB Stamps". Retrieved 2018-11-28.

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