On my living-room wall I have a painting of a wildcat by John Holmes of which I am extremely fond. It depicts a snarling, spitting animal, teeth bared and back arched: a taut coiled spring ready to unleash some unknown fury.Select
However, the physical differences are tangible. The wildcat is a much larger animal, weighing in some cases up to seven kilos, the same as a typical male fox. The coat pattern is superficially similar to a domestic tabby cat but it is all stripes and no spots. The tail is thicker and blunter, with three to five black rings. The animal has an altogether heavier look.
The Scottish wildcat was originally distinguished as a separate subspecies in 1912, but it is now generally recognised that there is little difference between the Scottish and other European populations. According to an excellent report on the wildcat printed in 1991, the animals originally occurred in a variety of habitats throughout Europe.Select
It was during the nineteenth century, with the establishment of many estates used by landowners for hunting, that the wildcat became a nuisance and its rapid decline really began; 198 wildcats were killed in three years in the area of Glengarry, for example. However, things were later to improve for the species.Select
The future is by no means secure, though, and recent evidence suggests that the wildcat is particularly vulnerable to local eradication, especially in the remoter parts of northern and western Scotland. This is a cause for real concern, given that the animals in these areas have less contact with domestic cats and are therefore purer.Select
Part of the problem stems from the fact that the accepted physical description of the species originates from the selective nature of the examination process by the British Natural History Museum at the start of the century, and this has been used as the type-definition for the animal ever since. Animals that did not conform to that large blunt-tailed ‘tabby’ description were discarded as not being wildcats. In other words, an artificial collection of specimens was built up, exhibiting the features considered typical of the wildcat.
The current research aims to resolve this potential problem. It is attempting to find out whether there are any physical features which characterise the so-called wild-living cats.Select
But what of his lifestyle? Wildcat kittens are usually born in May/June in a secluded den, secreted in a gap amongst boulders. Another favourite location is in the roots of a tree.Select
Rabbits are a favourite prey, and some of the best areas to see wildcats are at rabbit warrens close to the forest and moorland edge. Mice, small birds and even insects also form a large part of the diet, and the animal may occasionally take young deer.
The wildcat is one of the Scottish Highlands’ most exciting animals. Catch a glimpse of one and the memory will linger forever.