It’s kitten time again and our trail cameras and some helpful public sightings are coming in about young cats out and about, but which are wildcats and which are hybrids or ferals and how do we tell? It’s a kitten conundrum!
One of the many ways in which Scottish wildcats differ from domestic cats is that they breed just once a year, whereas a feral cat can have 2 or even 3 litters per year. Wildcat courtship happens in late winter (January to March) and births in spring (usually March to May).
Female wildcats will choose a safe and secure den site such as a stone cairn or deep hole to have her kittens in; somewhere their main predators such as dogs, badgers and foxes can’t dig them out. Like all kittens, they are born blind and the mother will leave her tiny vulnerable young in this ‘nest’ to go hunting to support them.
However, once the kittens reach five to six weeks of age, they become more mobile and will start to wander out of the den and explore their world. We have noticed this is the time that a female wildcat is most likely to move her kittens. One theory is that, at this stage, the kittens become more vulnerable to aerial predators such as raptors so the mother will move them to denser cover. She will also move them whenever she feels they are vulnerable or when disturbed.
The kittens will begin to follow their mother on hunting trips and start learning the many skills they will need to survive in the wild. This is the time of year some lucky people catch a glimpse of wildcat families out and about. What a treat! The kittens usually reach independence in autumn (August to October) and face a difficult first winter finding their own territory.
It is very difficult to tell a wildcat kitten from a domestic tabby cat kitten. There is essentially a universal tabby kitten colouration and the tail is not yet the classic blunt-tipped shape. The distinctive markings and stripes of a wildcat that we use to identify them when they are adults (using a pelage scoring system) develop over the first few months, so identifying kittens is usually reliant on clues from the cat’s parentage or, if possible, a DNA test.
This kitten has been spotted in a known wildcat area and at least one of its parents is a wildcat. We will be watching to see what it grows into (wildcat or hybrid?) with great interest. There is no doubt it is very cute though.
For more images of kittens born this year please visit our Facebook page.
Scottish Wildcat Action is the first national project to save the highly endangered Scottish wildcat from extinction. It is a partnership involving over 20 organisations, including, Scottish Natural Heritage, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), Cairngorms National Park Authority, Forestry Commission Scotland, National Museums Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. It is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund and Scottish Government, as well as its partners.