When is a wild cat a wildcat?
There has been quite a lot in the press lately about the authenticity or otherwise of the Scottish wildcat. What is it that marks some animals out as the genuine article, separating them from wild-living tabby feral cats?
Scottish wildcats form the most northern and western part of the European wildcat range, whereas domestic cats come from a lineage of wild cats originating in Africa. Despite their evolutionary paths having been separate for around 130,000 years; wildcats and domestic cats are able to breed and produce fertile offspring – which probably started to occur when they were brought together by the introduction of domestic cats to Scotland around 2,500 years ago.
Readers will appreciate when it comes to protecting Scottish wildcats we are now faced with complex issues of hybridisation, probability and conservation values. Put simply how can we tell if our wild-living cats are moggies or the mystical Scottish creatures of the glens?
By reputation wildcats are untameable. Unlike domestic cats, they have never lived around humans; even as kittens, wildcats have a basic mistrust of people and fierceness towards anyone who comes near. Given this feisty propensity, they have featured in the badges and mottos of several clans– including MacBean, Macintosh, MacGillivray, MacThomas and MacPhersons. Feral cats that are not socialized as kittens can also be pretty spirited, but a cat that is biddable to humans is probably not a wildcat.
Wildcats primarily feed on small rodents, with rabbits being their prey of choice where they are available. Den sites can be rocky cairns, logging piles, under tree roots or may be less obvious structures such as brash mats or beneath whins. At this time of year (December) some female wildcats may be entering their fertile period: the main breeding season is late winter with kittens (normally 3-4 per litter) emerging in the spring.
Researchers have studied the physical characteristics that distinguish wildcats from domestic cats and their hybrids using museum specimens and cats killed on the road. To do this, they’ve looked at skull shape and size, limb bones and relative intestine lengths. But such measures do not readily help to protect living wildcats and so their outward appearance – and in particular, their coat markings – have been closely studied. An identification key has been published which relies on 7 key ‘pelage’ characteristics – http://www.highlandtiger.com/science_wildcatID.asp . However, in the field the most prominent characteristic is the thick bushy tail with distinct dark rings and a blunt, black tip. The wildcat definition is quite a strict test, however, recent trail camera footage has revealed there are still wild-living wildcats that possess these typical features.
Delving further into the murky waters of wildcat-iness we have to consider their genetic make-up. Research suggests that the cats living-wild in Scotland range from domestic cats, through every shade of hybrid, to probable wildcats. Animals are assigned to a wildcat or a domestic ancestry based on genetic markers (based on probability). Work is ongoing, and a larger sample of wildcats needs to be tested to verify this work, but indications suggest there are still individuals that are largely of wildcat ancestry. However, even some of the ‘best’ wildcats may have a small number of domestic genetic markers. Given the time that domestic cats have been in Scotland, and the fact that our Highland glens were once more populated than they are today, there may be some domestic cat DNA in the wildcats of even our most remote areas.
So if we have animals that look like wildcats, appear to behave like wildcats and (from a small sample) appear to be of predominantly wildcat ancestry, are they wildcats? The partner organisations in the national conservation action plan believe this is the pragmatic approach and are seeking to protect the distinct group of cats that look like wildcats, but may not all be genetically pure wildcats.
However, there have also been domestic cats and poor hybrids in all the areas studied. There is still a need to reduce the risks our remaining wildcats are facing. The Wildcat Action project, which aims to do just this in six priority areas, will start in the New Year.
Web links – Highland Tiger
Photo credits – Image one by Laurie Campbell, image number two by Pete Cairns, image three (c) SNH, final image courtesy of Roo Campbell WildCRU.