As the nights begin to draw in and the first leaves begin to turn, we arrive again at another critical time of the year for wildcats, sparked by the amorous behaviour of adult wildcats last winter. Yes, it’s the time that this year’s cohort of kittens reach independence and begin to wander further in search of a new home.
Juvenile wildcats and mother at camera trap in September 2016
One of the great risks to these wandering youngsters is the need to cross our roads more frequently. If we take a look the dates that we receive dead cats (of any type) from our roads, we can see there is a spike in road casualty cats over September and through the autumn. Most of these probably happen around dusk and dawn or overnight. Note this is quite a small sample (29 cats) so we should be a little cautious about over-interpreting these figures, but anecdotally we all notice a rise in reports of dead cats at this time, with many of them being juveniles.
Graph of road casualties by month
Occasionally, we find ‘hot-spots’ of road casualties, particularly where landscape features form natural funnels or crossing points (e.g. habitat edges, tracks, rivers, bridges), coupled with restricted visibility (bendy roads) or high vehicle speeds. Some of these can be major A roads, such as the A9 in Strathspey, and the A835 between Conon Bridge and Contin in Strathpeffer Priority Area, which have claimed a number of victims since the project began in 2015. The relatively quieter single-track roads of Morvern have also proven to be a real risk for local cats, particularly the road between Lochaline and Drimnin, because cats hunt in the roadside verges and use the roads to travel at night, and are consequently vulnerable to fast-moving vehicles. We have been working with some of the local schools to raise awareness of this issue.
Wildcat road sign by a Strathpeffer pupil
Though not helpful for the future of wildcats, Road Traffic Accident (RTA) wildcats and other RTA cats are a genuinely helpful, if gruesome, tool in increasing our knowledge. These cats have usually sustained injuries to the face and head, suggesting that they have run into a vehicle head-on. They often also have torn claws which indicate that they attempt to grip the road surface at the moment of impact. We collect dead cats at the earliest possible opportunity so that it’s a fresh as possible. Sometimes, members of the public hand them in, which helps us a lot. Surprisingly often, the cat disappears between someone contacting us and a staff member arriving at the scene to collect the carcass. I assume there must be a significant black-market in cat taxidermy, even though it is illegal to possess without licence a dead or stuffed wildcat that died after June 1994. The dead cats we collect are sent to the National Museum of Scotland, where they are skinned for a more detailed pelage assessment and then undergo post-mortem to check for other injuries, parasite load, and stomach content. Blood samples are taken to test for disease, and tissue samples are sent to the RZSS Wildgenes lab for genetic testing. Decomposed or degraded remains can still be tested for disease and genetic makeup. Outside our priority areas this is the most important source of information on the genetics and disease of wild-living cats. So if you see a dead cat by the side of the road in one of our Priority Areas (or suspected wildcats or hybrids outside these areas), try to move it onto the verge if it is safe for you to do so, and then get in touch with our project team. If you would like to move it yourself, use rubber gloves and wrap the sample in plastic before putting it into the freezer. If the cat has a collar or is obviously someone’s pet cat, please get in touch with the local Cats Protection branch via their website or try to locate the owner if possible.
Road casualty cat: Credit Pete Cairns
Most importantly, if you are driving in wildcat country, please be aware of the risks to wildcats at this time of year. Drive safely.