Keri is responsible for Northern Strathspey and Morvern. She has extensive experience of working as an ecological consultant and has worked for Cat’s Protection. She is based at The National Trust for Scotland office.
by Scottish Wildcat Action Project Officers, Emma Rawling and Keri Langridge
It’s the time of year when our remaining Scottish Wildcats (and other cats in the countryside) have their kittens and some are being seen out and about, even without mum. We’ve had a few inquiries recently, and one incident where a well-meaning member of the public removed possible wildcat kittens from the wild, so we thought it was a good time to discuss what’s normal, what’s legal and what to do if you are worried about any kittens you see.
It can be very difficult to distinguish between wild-living Scottish wildcat kittens, and those of more hybridised wildcats and tabby domestic cats. For adult wildcats, we can assess the ancestry of individual cats based on their appearance (such as bluntness of the tail tip) and coat markings (e.g. the separate tail rings) by using the pelage scoring system. But wildcat kittens have pointy tails just like domestic cat kittens, and can show variable coat markings that develop as they grow, so they cannot be reliably pelage scored until at least six months of age. It's virtually impossible to tell whether kittens are domestic tabby cats or wildcats without the help of genetic testing.
Wildcat kittens in the Highland Wildlife Park (above) often show variable coat patterns, from stripy to spotty, some with small white patches on the throat, and all have pointy tails. But their wildcat status can be determined from both their parentage and genetic tests on blood samples. In contrast, potential wildcat kittens in the wild (below) can be very difficult to assess from camera trap images alone, and field workers try to get hair or scat samples or photos of the mum.
Moreover, a single litter of kittens can show ‘multiple paternity’ (i.e. they have more than one father), so the individual kittens may look very different from each other.
Camera trap photos from Strathpeffer in 2014 showing a hybrid female wildcat with three stripy/spotty hybrid kittens and one ginger fellow (later found alive in the middle of the road nearby and successfully rehomed)
Correctly identifying the species (or the level of hybridisation) is vitally important in determining the best outcome for any orphaned kittens: wildcat orphans will require expert ‘hands off’ care to maximise the chances of re-release to the wild, whereas kittens of domestic origin (or hybrids with little wildcat ancestry) require early capture and lots of ‘hands on’ TLC so they can be tamed and rehomed.
Identifying kittens is therefore usually more reliant on clues from the cats parentage (i.e. the mother is a wildcat), the location where they were found (more remote areas are less likely to be domestic feral cats or highly hybridised wildcats), or a DNA test on hair, scat, or blood samples if possible.
One of five possible wildcat/hybrid kittens found last week during a camera-trap survey in the Cairngorms. SWA staff are providing assistance to try and collect hair or scat samples from the kittens to send for genetic analysis (credit: C. Navarro, Cairngorms Connect Predator Project)
Wildcats usually breed just once a year in late winter and usually give birth to 2-4 kittens around April/May. The kittens are born blind and the mother will hide her tiny vulnerable young in a secure den while she goes hunting. A den could be inside a rocky cairn, a brash pile, under tree roots, or even inside an empty fox den, badger sett or rabbit warren. It is very rare to see kittens above ground at this stage, and if you see such tiny kittens alone, it is likely that mum will be nearby as they are completely dependent on her. If the den site is disturbed, the mother will usually move the kittens to another secure site by carrying them in her mouth one at a time, leaving the remaining kittens temporarily alone.
Wildcat kittens open their eyes after 10-13 days and start walking at 16-20 days, finally emerging from the den to play at 4-5 weeks of age. They may be alone for short periods at this stage if mum is away on a hunting trip, and they will have begun to eat solid food but are still dependent on her. At 7 weeks old, their eye colour begins to change from blue to the yellow-green colour of the adults, and they may be spending more time outside exploring the area around the den site.
By 10-12 weeks the wildcat kittens are happily trailing around after mum learning their hunting skills. They will join mum on longer trips and may use several other den sites in their territory, and travel considerable distances. This is when we most often get first glimpses of kittens on camera traps. It is also unfortunately when kittens become vulnerable to risks such as roads, dogs and other predators- a timely reminder to keep your pets under close control in our woodland environments at this time of year.
Mum hybrid with kittens trailing behind. Mum and kittens were first filmed in October 2017, when the kittens were too young to trap. Mum was trapped at the end of February when the kittens were independent. She was pelage scored as 15-16 (hybrid) and neutered, and her blood sample returned a genetic score of 36% wildcat. The kittens were trapped at 6 months of age when their pelage already showed many hybrid features (they returned genetic scores of 37% and 49%), and were subsequently neutered, vaccinated and returned.
A kitten from a known hybrid cat in Morvern, approximately 4 weeks old.
A domestic tabby kitten, age nine weeks
If you see tabby kittens alone in a possible wildcat area and/or if mum looks like a wildcat, you should be cautious and assume they could be wildcat kittens.
Wildcats are protected under The Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994. If you are concerned about possible wildcat kittens seen alone without their mother, DO NOT DISTURB - back off quietly, observe carefully and seek expert advice. If you intervene, you may put mum off returning to the den. The den is also legally protected and disturbing a wildcat inside is also an offence. Contact Scottish Wildcat Action (contact information below), Scottish Natural Heritage, or the SSPCA. This keeps you on the right side of the wildlife protection laws, and helps ensure the best possible outcome for the kittens too.
If there is an immediate welfare risk (for example, a kitten appears injured or ill, it is in the middle of the road, or has been attacked by a dog) then immediate intervention may be necessary. Such emergency intervention is allowed under the law but seek expert advice at the earliest opportunity.
This kitten (above) was reported by member of the public in Aberdeenshire, who we advised to observe for several hours to ensure the mother cat wasn’t nearby and it was truly abandoned. When no mother returned, and with the kitten cold and wet , we had to intervene on welfare grounds and transferred the kitten to a vet. We then erected numerous trail cameras to try and identify the mother or any other kittens - and these were left in place for a week. Sadly another kitten was found the next day, also abandoned, but injured with a broken leg and it later sadly died in veterinary care. The project precautionary assumed these kittens to be wildcats and treated them as such until proven otherwise using genetic tests. This meant ensuring appropriate specialist housing, natural diet and ‘hands off’ rehabilitation care. The kitten which survived turned out to be only 33% wildcat, and as a hybrid was neutered and successfully rehomed.
Rescuing the kittens is only the start of a potentially complicated process. This requires proper identification of the kitten using genetic testing and appropriate rehabilitation - which can vary depending on whether they are confirmed as wildcats, domestic or hybrid cats. Very careful planning is also crucial if it is decided it is best to release any confirmed wildcats back into the wild. The release of a domestic feral cat back into the wild is an offence without a licence from SNH (this could include the release of hybrids with a high proportion of domestic cat ancestry).
If they are confirmed as wildcats, and the decision is made to release them into the wild, then it’s important to remember that this would be an offence if this was to be done in certain parts of Scotland where they are now judged to have become extinct (you can find out more about this in chapter 5 of the Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations, and by getting advice from SNH).
The aim should be to release any wildcats in places where they are most likely to do best. This will include areas where there are other wildcats with which they can breed and active programmes of suitable management such as TNVR programmes, etc. We would therefore strongly encourage any wildcat rescued from an SWA ‘Priority Area’ to be released in that same area. An alternative simple option is to release at the point of capture – although we would strongly recommend best practice is applied and the suitability of the potential release site is carefully considered. Alternatively the animals could be taken care of through the Conservation Breeding for Release Programme led by RZSS, which has been set up to help address the future, long term conservation of the species in Scotland.
Hybrid kitten camera trapped in our Strathbogie wildcat priority area. It was part of a litter of kittens that returned genetic scores of 46-49% and they were neutered.
If you need to get in touch you can email one of our Project Officers or our Priority Area Manager Dr Roo Campbell:
This content was made possible by our Partners & Funders at Heritage Lottery Fund