Latest News - All in a name? Should Scottish wildcats be called woodcats or bar-tailed cats instead?

All in a name? Should Scottish wildcats be called woodcats or bar-tailed cats instead?

Last summer, we were in a remote mountain valley in the Swiss Alps, just opened after the snow melt. A golden eagle had drifted over the highest belt of trees and a stalking fox pounced on a rodent. Then I saw a great arrow shaped raptor glide across the lower slopes, soon joined by its mate, their pale heads bright against the dark spruces. ‘Lammergeiers’ I shouted to my Swiss friends, 'Bearded Vulture' came back their reply. They soared back over the great crags of ice and rock and I was reminded that Lammergeier was an old name and in German meant lamb killer, a complete misnomer for this great vulture, with its amazing ability to harness marrow from bones by dropping them on rocks – the final act in the activities of vultures scavenging dead mammals. The recovery of this rare bird in the Alps would not be helped by miscalling it a lamb killer. A clear example of getting the name right.

Older ornithologists like me have seen bird names change – sensibly hedge sparrow to dunnock, and have had to weather the politically correct renaming of the 1990s, when robins and blackbirds became Eurasian robin and common blackbird, despite perfectly good scientific names common to birders in every country. Yet there are times when names are clearly a hindrance to a species or just inappropriate. Killer whales have a much better image when called orcas – although the name means much the same thing! And personally I object to the name Minke whale, when I see one of these wonderful mammals around the Scottish coast. I prefer to use lesser rorqual than commemorate the name of a long gone Norwegian whaler. I’d love to see the name changed to lesser rorqual in our books and references. Of course others might say does it really matter – but consider the public attitude to rats – and then think of another common rodent the red squirrel. As someone said of the red squirrel – just a rodent with great PR!

Red squirrel caught on a wildcat camera trap - "a rodent with great PR"

Red squirrel caught on wildcat camera trap - thanks to James Walker volunteer

But here in Scotland there is a rare mammal which definitely needs a name change in my view. Our rarest mammal and one that is in serious trouble. The wildcat or is it wild cat. But what does that mean – does it live in wild places (not always!), is it wild in the dangerous way – no, never or is it wild (not tameable) as opposed to the tame house cat. In fact a complete misnomer which causes problems for its conservation when one tries to explain to ordinary folk the differences between domestic cats, feral cats (domestic cats living away from houses) or wildcats.

In French this cat is sometimes called (l’chat de bois) the ‘forest cat’ and its scientific name ‘silvestris’ refers to woods. There’s an old English name of woodcat and scientifically our subspecies is in one of three types, the forest wildcat. It’s no help calling it the Scottish wildcat because the species used to live throughout mainland Britain, and should do again in many places. Personally I also like the sound of a name to commemorate the beautiful diagnostic black rings on its bushy tail such as ring-tailed cat or bar-tailed cat. But ring-tailed cat is used in North America for a species of racoon. Should we have a debate and choose a much more appropriate name – at the time of change, some will say ‘what nonsense’, give it ten years and the ‘new’ name would become standard use and could be so much better for the future conservation of Britain’s rarest mammal - Felis silvestris. Does bar-tailed cat or forest cat sound right or should we return to woodcat?

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Photo credit: With thanks to Peter Cairns for the Scottish wildcat on tree branch image and our volunteer, James Walker, for the red squirrel.

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.

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Roy Dennis MBE lives in Moray and has worked in wildlife conservation since 1958. He is a specialist in ecological restoration, raptor conservation and reintroductions. His early satellite tracking of migratory raptors as well as golden and sea eagles broke new ground. He has successfully translocated red squirrels to three locations in the Scottish Highlands and has long been an advocate for restoring lost mammals to Scotland.


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