In The Wild
At first glance, Scottish wildcats (Felis silvestris) may look similar to a pet cat, but on closer inspection there are differences. The wide, flat head, ears pointing more sideways, a bushy blunt-ended tail encircled with dark rings, and a distinctly striped coat all distinguish the true wildcat from feral cats. Research has also revealed differences in their genetic make-up, gut length and skull features.
Unlike the domestic cat, the wildcat is a seasonal breeder. The ancestors of our domestic pet cat were the Middle Eastern wildcat. After centuries of evolution and human selection, the domestic cat today is considered a separate species, Felis catus. In Britain, the pet cat arrived with the Romans or the Phoenicians. Today, there are many domestic cats that have 'gone wild'. These feral cats can interbreed with the Scottish wildcat, and produce fertile hybrid cats. Such cross breeding is the primary risk to the future survival of the Scottish wildcat at risk.
The Latin name for the wildcat, Felis silvestris means 'forest cat'. Since forests first covered the land, the wildcat has lived in Britain, however human persecution and habitat destruction led to its extinction in England, Wales and southern Scotland by 1880. The remote Highlands provided a last refuge for this threatened cat.
The Scottish wildcat is now fully protected by law and is generally recognised as a separate subspecies, Felis silvestris grampia, confined to the Central and Northern Highlands of mainland Scotland. Their preferred habitat is upland forest with young trees, moorland, scrub and hill ground where they can lie up during the day in a den among rocky cairns, old fox earths, badger setts, or among tree roots. The wildcat is a useful predator of pests such as rabbits and rodents and will also eat birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects and may scavenge fresh road casualties.
Relatively solitary and territorial, the wildcat is active at night particularly around dawn and dusk. Territory is marked out by urine and droppings, and by scratches on tree trunks. The male's home range overlaps that of the female and young males may be nomadic until they establish their own territories. Mating occurs during February and 2-6 kittens are born approximately 68 days later. The family breaks up after about 5 months, when the young leave to establish their own home range.