Hidden in the vast, open wilderness of the Morvern and Ardnamurchan peninsulas lurks a truly wild creature. A ferocious and efficient killer that prowls forest edges and rocky moorland in search of its next meal; Scotland’s own tiny tiger. The Scottish Wildcat. Right on Resipole’s doorstep. Unfortunately, like most of the other tigers in the world this cat faces huge threats to its survival in the wild, potentially facing extinction if issues aren’t addressed soon. Time is running out for the highland tiger.
What is a Wildcat?
The Scottish Wildcat, Felis silvestris grampia, is the largest member of the wildcat family, in some cases nearly twice the size of a domestic moggy. Now, whilst it may bare a slight resemblance to a tabby cat that is definitely not case and closer inspection reveals a much bigger, chunkier creature with a broader flatter head shape. The wildcat has a black stripe running the length of its body, stopping at the base of the spine and a thick blunt black banded tail with a black tip. Another defining feature are the 7 to 11 unbroken stripes along the body. Any broken markings or spots on the back may indicate that it is not a pure wild cat but a hybrid, the product of a wildcat and a feral cat mating. A more in depth guide to the differences between the two can be found here.
The wild cat is solitary and makes its home in boulders, tree roots or disused fox and badger setts along forest edges, or open moorland (especially if there are young tree plantations) where it hunts mainly rabbits and hares but will easily take birds and fish if the need arises. They hunt in that typical cat fashion of stalking and pouncing with incredible efficiency. Most of this hunting activity takes place at dawn and dusk but harsh weather in the winter will push them to hunt in the day to ensure they get enough food. They may also help themselves to carrion if food is in short supply. Males and females will come together from January to March to mate, and will then go their separate ways, leaving the female to raise the kittens on her own when they are born around April and May. Whilst these stealthy predators are fierce they are also vulnerable, there are currently less than 400 in the wild.
Threats to the Wildcat.
Originally persecuted by gamekeepers and farmers for supposedly taking game birds and livestock, they are now a protected species, but they still face plenty of challenges today. The top threat being feral cats. Feral cats were once domestic cats that have either escaped or have been abandoned and reverted to a wild way of life. They compete for the same food sources as wild cats and because the population of feral cats is higher they are usually more successful. As well as having an impact on food sources, they can harbour and spread parasites and diseases, which potentially threaten the already dwindling wildcat population. Possibly the biggest threat that they pose to the wild cat is hybridisation. With such large numbers of feral cats present in the wild (research suggests that there is a ratio of 250 feral cats to 1 wildcat) they are more likely to breed with the Scottish wildcat. The resulting offspring are a mix of wild and feral which will eventually result in the pure wild cat genetics being entirely wiped out. These hybrid mixes also look a lot like wild cats, making it incredibly hard to tell the difference between the two. This means control carried out on the feral population by game keepers and farmers may end in the accidental persecution of the seriously threatened wildcat.
What’s being done?
There is some important work being carried out on the Ardnamurchan and Morven Peninsulas to help prevent the seemingly imminent loss of the U.K’s. This area in West Lochaber has been recognised by various conservation groups as one of the last strongholds for the Scottish wildcat. Here there is enough food and a rugged wilderness for them to make their home, hunt and breed, so it is here that there was a call for action to continue to keep this area as safe as possible for them. By monitoring the numbers of cats, working with locals to raise awareness of their plight, and helping prevent the spread of feral cats then there is hope that the rapidly declining population of Felis Silvestris Grampia can be saved.
The Wild Cat Haven group have created just that, a wildcat haven, here on the peninsulas. Within these areas they work to tackle the huge problem of feral cats by trapping them (in humane baited cages), vaccinating them, neutering them and then releasing them. By conducting this humane project, they can help to eradicate the diseases these creatures carry and prevent them from breeding with the Scottish wildcats to stop hybridisation and keep the bloodline pure. They also raise awareness of the issue within the local community and encourage pet owners and farms to get their pets and farms cats neutered. As well as monitoring the havens, they created a buffer zone on the land bridge between them, here they bait camera traps to keep an eye out for any feral cats that are encroaching on the safe zones. These cats will be trapped so that they can be treated before they become a threat to the havens.
How can you help?
You might just be lucky enough to spot one of these elusive creatures whilst out rambling high on the hills, or you may catch the glint of a wildcat’s eyes in your headlights as you make your way along the winding roads one evening. Perhaps you might even be lucky enough to snap a picture or catch one on a trail cam. If you do then you could contribute to the saving of this incredible animal by reporting your sighting to Wildcat Haven or Scottish Wildcat Action. Even if it’s a sighting of a feral cat, every sighting could help in the wildcats fight against extinction.
Whilst you’re unlikely to see these secretive predators, that take serious perseverance to spot, it would be real loss to the wilds of Lochaber if they were to disappear altogether. Just the knowledge that here at Resipole we are so close to these elusive creatures is pretty amazing, they could easily be lurking in the jungles of ferns or the forests and open moorlands that surround us. They are Scotland’s last truly wild creature in a truly wild habitat.
Text and title image by Jeni Bell
Wild cat and Pine Marten - Neil Bletcher