Scottish wildcat

Scottish wildcat
Scottish wildcat & kitten.jpg
CITES Appendix II (CITES)[2]
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Feliformia
Family: Felidae
Subfamily: Felinae
Genus: Felis
F. s. silvestris[1]
Trinomial name
Felis silvestris silvestris[1]
Schreber, 1777

F. s. grampia, Miller, 1907

Scottish Wildcat shows its fangs, 2013
Scottish Wildcat at British Wildlife Centre, 2015

The Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris syn. Felis silvestris grampia) is a European wildcat population in Scotland.[1] This population is estimated to comprise between 1,000 and 4,000 individuals, of which about 400 cats are thought to meet the morphological and genetic criteria of a wildcat.[2] The Scottish wildcat population used to be widely distributed across Britain, but has declined drastically since the turn of the 20th century due to habitat loss and persecution. It is now limited to north and east Scotland.[3] It is listed as Endangered in the United Kingdom and is primarily threatened by hybridization with domestic cats.[4] Camera-trapping surveys carried out in the Scottish Highlands between 2010 and 2013 revealed that wildcats live foremost in mixed woodland, whereas feral and domestic cats were photographed mostly in grasslands.[5]


Felis grampia was the scientific name proposed by Gerrit Smith Miller in 1907 who first described the skin and the skull of a wildcat specimen from Scotland. He argued that this male specimen from Invermoriston was same in size as the European wildcat Felis silvestris, but differed by a darker fur with more pronounced black markings and black soles of paws.[6] In 1912, Miller considered it a subspecies using Felis silvestris grampia after reviewing 22 skins from Scotland in the collection of the Natural History Museum, London.[7] When Reginald Innes Pocock reviewed the taxonomy of the genus Felis in the late 1940s, he had more than 40 Scottish wildcat specimens in the collection of the Museum at his disposal. He recognized Felis silvestris grampia as a valid taxon.[8]

Results of morphological and genetic analyses indicate that the Scottish wildcat descended from the European wildcat. The population in Great Britain became isolated about 7,000 to 9,000 years ago due to a rise of sea level after the last glacial maximum.[9] Since 2017, the Cat Classification Task Force of the Cat Specialist Group recognizes Felis silvestris silvestris as the valid scientific name for all European wildcat populations, and F. s. grampia as a synonym, arguing that it is doubtful that the Scottish wildcat is sufficiently distinct to accord it a separate subspecific status.[1]

It is still listed as Felis silvestris grampia by the Integrated Taxonomic Information System.[10]


The Scottish wildcat differs from a domestic cat by its heavier, more robust skull and longer limb-bones. It is also larger in body size, but with a shorter gastrointestinal tract.[11] Its fur is distinctly solid-striped with a tabby patterning. It has a bushy, ringed tail that is black at the tip, blunt, and without stripes. It does not have any white markings like a domestic cat, neither stripes on the cheeks and hind legs, nor spotted undersides or coloured backs of ears.[4]

Head to body length of male specimens ranges from 578–636 mm (22.8–25.0 in) with 305–355 mm (12.0–14.0 in) long tails, and of female specimens from 504–572 mm (19.8–22.5 in) with 280–341 mm (11.0–13.4 in) long tails. Condylobasal length of skulls of females varies from 82–88 mm (3.2–3.5 in), and of males from 88–99 mm (3.5–3.9 in).[8] Males are 3.77–7.26 kg (8.3–16.0 lb), while females are smaller at 2.35–4.68 kg (5.2–10.3 lb).[12]

Distribution and habitat

The Scottish wildcat has been present in Britain since the early Holocene, when the British Isles were connected to continental Europe via the Doggerland.[13] It was once common throughout all of Great Britain.[3] In Southern England, it was likely extirpated during the 16th century. By the mid-19th century, its range had declined to west-central Wales and Northumberland due to persecution, and by 1880 to western and northern Scotland. By 1915, it occurred only in northwestern Scotland.[14] Following the decreasing number of gamekeepers after World War I and a re-forestation program, the wildcat population increased again to its current range. Urbanization and industrialization prevented further expansion to the southern parts of Scotland.[3]

Its current distribution includes Cairngorms, the Black Isle, Aberdeenshire, Angus Glens and Ardnamurchan.[15][16]

Scottish wildcats live in wooded habitats, shrubland and near forest edges, but avoid heather moorland and areas where gorse is growing.[5] They prefer areas away from agriculturally used land and avoid snow deeper than 10 cm (3.9 in).[17]

Behaviour and ecology

Between March 1995 and April 1997, 31 Scottish wildcats were fitted with radio-collars in the area of Angus Glens and tracked for at least five months. In all seasons, they were foremost active by night with activity decreasing at low moonlight and in windy weather.[18] Home ranges of male wildcats overlap with home ranges of one or more females, whereas female ranges rarely overlap. Adult cats maintain larger territories than juveniles. They mark and defend their home ranges using scent marking through their scat.[19] Home range size in and around Cairngorms National Park was estimated at 2.44–3.8 km2 (0.94–1.47 sq mi).[17]

It mainly preys on European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and field vole (Microtus agrestis).[19] Scats collected in Drumtochty Forest and two more sites in the Scottish Highlands contained remains of rabbit, wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus), field and bank vole (Myodes glareolus), and of birds.[20] Any uneaten remnants of a kill will be buried in a cache to save for later.[12]


Male Scottish wildcats reach sexual maturity at around 10 months of age, and the female at an age of less than 12 months. A female had one estrous in early March, and a litter was born in early May after a gestation period of 63–68 days. Another estrous occurred about one month later, and the second litter was born in August. Kittens open their eyes at 10–13 days old; their eyes are initially blue, and change to green around seven weeks of age.[21]

In the wild, mating occurs between January and March. Litter size varies from one to eight kittens, with a mean litter size of 4.3 young. Females rarely give birth in winter.[22] Kittens are born in a den, which is hidden within a cairn, among brush piles, and under tree roots. They begin learning how to hunt at 10–12 weeks, and are fully weaned by 14 weeks of age. They leave their mothers around six months of age. Kitten mortality during the winter of 1975−1978 was high, most starved.[19]

Captive Scottish wildcats lived for 15 years, but lifespan in the wild is much shorter due to road accidents and disease transmitted from feral domestic cats.[23]


Continued threats to the Scottish wildcat population include habitat loss and hunting.[2] Hybridization with domestic cats is regarded as a threat to the population.[4] It is likely that all Scottish wildcats today have at least some domestic cat ancestry.[24] Domestic cats also transmit diseases to the Scottish wildcat, such as feline calicivirus, feline coronavirus, feline foamy virus, feline herpesvirus, feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukemia virus.[25]

Scottish wildcats were frequently killed to protect game species of bird, and they were considered vermin.[26]


The Scottish wildcat was given protected status under the United Kingdom's Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.[4] Since 2007, it has been listed in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan as a priority species.[9] Feral cats can be killed throughout the year.[27]

The Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan was developed by the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Group (SWCAG), which set national action priorities and defined responsibilities of agencies and funding priorities for the group's conservation efforts between 2013 and 2019. Its implementation is coordinated by Scottish Natural Heritage.[28] In the wild, efforts to conserve wildcats include neutering feral cats and euthanizing diseased feral cats to prevent hybridization and spread of disease.[29]

By 2014, the project members had researched nine potential action areas, settling on six, which were considered as having the highest likelihood of conservation success, with work planned beginning in 2015: Morvern, Strathpeffer, Strathbogie, Strathavon, Dulnain and The Angus Glens. An area of the remote and largely undisturbed Ardnamurchan Peninsula was designated a Scottish wildcat sanctuary, a project of The Aspinall Foundation and scientist Paul O'Donoghue. Part of their effort involves neutering domestic cats to prevent breeding with wildcats.[30]

In 2018, the official efforts fell under the auspices of Scottish Wildcat Action, a coalition including government and academic institutions, with an updated list of five priority areas: Strathbogie, Angus Glens, Northern Strathspey, Morvern and Strathpeffer.[31] In 2019 a report for Scottish Wildcat Action found that that wildcat population in Scotland was no longer viable, and the species was at the verge of extinction.[32]

In captivity

Scottish wildcat at the British Wildlife Centre

A captive breeding program for the Scottish wildcat has been established in the frame of the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan, with wild-caught individuals that pass genetic and morphological tests to be considered wildcats with less than 5% hybridization.[28] Participating institutions include the Alladale Wilderness Reserve, Chester Zoo, British Wildlife Centre, Port Lympne Wild Animal Park, Highland Wildlife Park and Aigas Field Centre.[23][33]

This captive breeding program has drawn criticism from animal-rights organizations like Captive Animals Protection Society, which stated that the breeding program has "little to do with conservation and everything to do with these zoos stocking their cages".[34]

Six kittens were born at the Highland Wildlife Park in 2015.[35] From 2011 to 2016, there have been 15 surviving Scottish wildcat kittens born at the Highland Wildlife Park.[36] As of December 2016, around 80 Scottish wildcats were in captivity.[37]

Conservation groups' political controversy

Within the conservation community, there are some political divides over proper actions and strategies. In 2014, the Scottish Wildcat Association and Wildcat Haven challenged the efforts of Scottish Natural Heritage.[38] In 2017, Scottish Wildcat Action, the official government organisation, defended itself from what it called unfair criticism by Wildcat Haven.[39]

In culture

The Scottish wildcat is traditionally an icon of the Scottish wilderness. The Scottish wildcat or Kellas cat is the likely inspiration of the mythological Scottish creature, Cat sìth. It has been a symbol of Clan Chattan, a Scottish clan, since the 13th century. Most of the members of Clan Chattan have the Scottish wildcat on their crest badges, and their motto is "Touch not the cat bot a glove",– "bot" meaning "without". The motto is a reference to the ferocity of Scottish wildcats. Clan Chattan has participated in Scottish wildcat conservation efforts since 2010.[12]

In 2010, as part of the International Year of Biodiversity, the Royal Mail issued a series of 10 stamps celebrating at-risk mammals, one of which depicted the Scottish wildcat.[40][41]

In media

The Scottish wildcat was the subject of a documentary film titled The Tigers of Scotland that was issued in 2017.[42]


  1. ^ a b c Kitchener, A.C.; Breitenmoser-Würsten, C.; Eizirik, E.; Gentry, A.; Werdelin, L.; Wilting, A.; Yamaguchi, N.; Abramov, A. V.; Christiansen, P.; Driscoll, C.; Duckworth, J. W.; Johnson, W.; Luo, S.-J.; Meijaard, E.; O’Donoghue, P.; Sanderson, J.; Seymour, K.; Bruford, M.; Groves, C.; Hoffmann, M.; Nowell, K.; Timmons, Z.; Tobe, S. (2017). "A revised taxonomy of the Felidae: The final report of the Cat Classification Task Force of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group" (PDF). Cat News. Special Issue 11: 16−20.
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  40. ^ "Stamp celebrates Highland tiger". 13 April 2010. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  41. ^ "Mammals (Action for Species 4) (2010) : Collect GB Stamps". www.collectgbstamps.co.uk. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  42. ^ The Tigers of Scotland, Wild Films Ltd, 2017, retrieved 19 January 2019

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