Find out how the experts do it and maybe pick up some tips of your own to distinguish between a Scottish wildcat, a tabby domestic cat and a hybrid of the two.
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Prey: what do wildcats eat?
Scottish wildcats like to eat rabbits and this is their main prey when it is available.
They also like to eat other small mammals, such as mice and voles.
Birds, invertebrates, reptiles and carrion are more unusual but possible, as is scavenging.
The wildcat is a truly magnificent stealth hunter, pouncing on its prey, often after a long and patient wait.
They use their excellent senses of smell, sight and sound to hunt.
They also have very sensitive whiskers that can detect tiny movements.
Location: where in Scotland can I find a Scottish wildcat?
Wildcats are extremely rare and very elusive creatures that usually stay away from humans so finding them is difficult.
Historically, Scottish wildcats lived across Britain but are now only found in the Scottish Highlands.
Scottish Wildcat Action has identified five wildcat priority areas within the Highlands: Morvern, Strathpeffer, Northern Strathspey, Angus Glens, and Strathbogie. See our map.
These are areas where there is good evidence of wildcats, based on survey work. The first stage of our project now is to work extensively in these areas to reduce threats in the wild and help give the remaining wildcats a fighting chance. Hopefully you will see more wildcats here in the future.
Wildcats have territories of varying sizes according to habitat quality and food availability. These can be from 1 to 25km₂ or more, which is a much bigger range than most domestic cats.
Males, in particular, will hold larger territories overlapping with those of several females.
Wildcats are usually found at altitudes less than 800m so they are more a forest cat than a mountain cat.
Time: when am I most likely to see a wildcat?
Wildcats are generally considered nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn) but they can be active during the day if it's quiet.
They tend to avoid people where possible, though can use areas frequented by people at night, such as farm buildings.
They are less active in bad weather, avoiding very wet conditions or deep snow.
They are most active in winter when hunger can drive them to hunt around the clock and males begin to travel to look for mates.
As they are very rare and elusive, it's difficult to spot them in the wild. Many people living in the Scottish Highlands may never see one.
Kittens: tell me about wildcat kittens or the breeding cycle
Scottish wildcats are generally solitary but in breeding season, males travel into nearby females territories to find a mate.
They don't remain with her afterwards to raise the kittens. Instead, kittens will live with the females for up to 6 months before becoming independent. They emerge from their den at approximately 5 weeks, hunting by 10 weeks. The mother may also move the kittens around.
The main mating season is January to March with kittens born usually April to May. Scottish wildcats only have one litter per year normally (unless the first is lost) unlike feral cats who can have several litters per year.
Their litter size usually averages 2-4 kittens.
Kittens have changeable markings, making it difficult to identify them.
Female kittens are ready to breed at around 12months, sometimes earlier, whereas males are able to breed from around 9months.
Habitats: where do wildcats live, hunt and sleep?
Wildcats are dependent on habitats that harbour prey such as rabbits, voles and mice.
This tends to be near open habitats, such as long pastures, rough grazing, and riparian vegetation, which are all used as hunting areas.
Forestry clear-fell and new plantations can also be popular because a lack of grazing means there are more small mammals to pick off.
When resting or sheltering, wildcats use areas of forest, dense gorse, juniper and thickets.
Windblown forestry areas are also great areas for providing cover and can be used by mother cats with young kittens.
Wildcats tend to dislike being out in open ground so will use edges of habitats, streams and roads to move around. They also prefer not to get their feet wet so will avoid crossing water unless there is a bridge.
Dens are used by females in the breeding season as well as adults year-round for shelter. Often multiple den sites are used in succession when raising kittens.
Rocky areas, cairns, log and brash piles or gaps under tree roots all make ideal natural dens sites. Artificial den sites can also be created under brash piles, or in scree with a wooden box.
Life expectancy: how long do wildcats live for?
Wildcats can live up to 15 years in captivity but in the wild, their life expectancy is thought to be 2-8years.
There is a very high mortality rate for kittens in the their first year.
Their main predators are raptors for kittens and people who mistake them for feral cats when carrying out predator control.
However, there are many other threats in the wild which also reduce their life expectancy, including disease.
Definition: what is a Scottish wildcat?
Scottish wildcats (Felis silvestris) look similar to a large tabby cat, weighing up to 8kg and measuring as long as 98cm.
However, there are some key differences. The most obvious is the thick tail that has a black blunt tip with thick black stripes.
They also have a much larger cranial capacity, shorter gut and a more angular jaw, good for crunching live prey with. Genetically, they are distinct from our domestic cats which have evolved from the Near Eastern wildcat rather than the European wildcat.
They are one of our last remaining natural predators and play an important role in a healthy ecosystem.
Threats: why are Scottish wildcats endangered?
The main threats are:
1) Hybridisation - Wildcats are very rare, so it makes it difficult for them to find and breed with other wildcats. Hybridisation starts when a Scottish wildcat breeds with a domestic cat, either an unneutered pet cat that is living in the countryside or a domestic cat that is living wild, known as a feral. Their hybrid kittens grow up and go on to breed again. A healthy population of wildcats can cope with some hybridisation on its fringes. However, because numbers of wildcats are now so low, and there are many times more domestic/feral cats, our native cat will soon be wiped out by this genetic introgression.
2) Disease - Ferals also carry a lot of disease and parasites unfortunately because they are often in poor condition. They can pass these on to wildcats including fatal diseases such as FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) and FeLV (feline leukaemia virus), as well as cat flu. Surviving the harsh Scottish winters is tough enough without disease so this contributes to a shorter lifespan and less opportunities for wildcats to produce offspring.
3) Accidental persecution - Some land owners keep game birds, such as pheasants, and feral cats are considered a pest because they eat these birds. Ferals are therefore shot to keep numbers down. This is a legal predator control practice. However, sometimes wildcats can be mistaken for a feral cat, particularly at night when it is difficult to see.
Solution: what can I do to help save the Scottish wildcat?
You can report sightings of any cats you know to be living in the wild.
You can volunteer to help us with our fieldwork to protect what's left
You can raise awareness in your school, community group or workplace.
You can donate to help us fund more activities in wildcat priority areas or conservation breeding to ensure there is a future for the wildcat.
Most importantly, you can neuter and vaccinate your pet cat to prevent unwanted kittens and the spread of disease.
Thank you for your support!
Numbers left: how many Scottish wildcats are there?
Scottish wildcats are highly elusive and difficult to identify in the wild due to hybridisation (cross-breeding) with domestic cats. Trail camera technology has revolutionised the way we monitor wildcat populations in the wild but this still relies on wildcats being attracted to bait left in front of the cameras and, crucially, showing us enough of their markings from all sides to allow us to assess its wildcat characteristics (known as a pelage score). Encouraging the cat to leave some of its hair on a Velcro pad (a hair trap) also allows us to test the cat's DNA but, so far, most cats have not left any or enough hairs for us to do this.
Scottish Wildcat Action defines a wildcat as anything that scores 17 or above on its pelage (out of a possible 21). We protect these cats in situ in wildcat priority areas and use this 17 cut-off for making decisions about breeding wildcats in zoos and wildlife parks (in conjunction with a genetic test where it's easier to get a blood sample).
In the wild, latest research suggests there are between 100-300 Scottish wildcats left (Kilshaw, 2014). However, Scottish Wildcat Action recently conducted its own survey of wildcat priority areas using 347 trail cameras, the largest survey ever conducted for this species. The results are still being analysed.
What are you doing: How are Scottish Wildcat Action working to save the Scottish wildcat?
The Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan was launched in 2013. This lays out a national plan based on the expertise of over 20 organisations. Our aim is a simple one: to deliver this plan and halt the decline of the Scottish wildcat within 6 years. In summary:
1) We have now identified five wildcat priority areas where there is good evidence of wildcats. These are Morvern, Strathpeffer, Strathbogie, Angus Glens and Northern Strathspey. The next step is to turn these into safe places for wildcats.
2) We will therefore focus on reducing the threats to the remaining wildcats in these areas through a Trap Neuter (Vaccinate) and Release programme, targeting feral domestic cats so that they cannot breed with or pass disease to wildcats. We also aim to encourage cat owners in these areas to consider neutering and vaccinating their pet or farm cats.
3) We will work with local people across Scotland to build up a better picture of what cats are out there through encouraging people to report sightings or get involved in volunteering to help monitor trail cameras.
4) We will also deliver training and presentations to schools, community groups and gamekeepers and participate in events, particularly in priority areas, to encourage wildcat friendly practices, help out with resources and raise awareness.
5) At the same time, we are also developing a conservation breeding programme. This will identify wildcats in high risk areas (i.e. areas outside of wildcat priority areas), screen them, and, if suitable, bring them in to large off-show enclosures at the Highland Wildlife Park or other private collections to breed. The purpose of this part of the project is to create a founder population that retains its wildness so we can later release them into safe areas to help boost local populations of wildcats.
6) Along the way, we are also collecting a lot of samples and data to analyse, such as photographs, hair and blood, so that we can vastly improve our collective understanding of Scottish wildcats, their distribution, genetics, and the extent to which hybridisation and disease has impacted on them.
I've seen a wildcat: what next? wildcat priority areas and other areas
If you have seen a Scottish wildcat, a possible wildcat hybrid or know of any feral cat colonies in a wildcat priority area, please report the sighting to our team through the Report Sightings page or get in touch with your local project officer to email them with a photo if you have any.
This information is used to help our staff and volunteers target conservation work to protect what's left of our native cat through a Trap Neuter Vaccinate and Release programme (TNVR). This involves humane trapping of feral cats and obvious hybrids to ensure they are neutered and vaccinated before being released. TNVR ensures they cannot breed with or spread disease to our few remaining wildcats.
Wildcat priority areas in Scotland:
Outside of wildcat priority areas, we are primarily interested in cats that could be suitable for the conservation breeding for release programme.
So, if you have seen a cat in the rest of the Scottish Highlands, and are convinced it displays all the characteristics of a Scottish wildcat, please contact the cat conservation officer to find out more.
Thank you for your help.
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