A wildcat crouches among the tall green grasses and yellow flowers

Saving Scotland's Wildcat

A wildcat crouches among the tall green grasses and yellow flowers

Saving Scotland's Wildcat

Across Europe, large carnivores are making a comeback. These top predators are often at the forefront of rewilding because they play an important role in the ecosystem as a keystone species. But, there are smaller, less well known carnivores in Europe that are equally deserving of our attention. The Scottish wildcat (Felis sylvestris) is the UK's only wild cat species and roams the glens and hillsides of the Scottish Highlands. Sadly, it is on the brink of extinction.

1. The Scottish Wildcat

2. A History of Persecution

3. Current Threats

4. The Future

Across Europe, large carnivores are making a comeback. These top predators are often at the forefront of rewilding because they play an important role in the ecosystem as a keystone species. But, there are smaller, less well known carnivores in Europe that are equally deserving of our attention. The Scottish wildcat (Felis sylvestris) is the UK's only wild cat species and roams the glens and hillsides of the Scottish Highlands. Sadly, it is on the brink of extinction.

1. The Scottish Wildcat

2. A History of Persecution

3. Current Threats

4. The Future

The Scottish Wildcat

The Scottish wildcat is a subpopulation of the European wildcat. It may look similar to a large tabby cat, but it is an important predator of small to medium size prey and plays a key role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. It has a distinctive thick tail with black stripes and a black blunt tip. Scottish wildcats are found most commonly in woodland edges, where they have access to open hunting grounds, perfect for hunting rabbits, voles and mice. They’re also found in the margins of mountains and moorlands with rough grazing.

A wildcat stands among the primroses and pears through a gap in the trees

The Scottish Wildcat

The Scottish wildcat is a subpopulation of the European wildcat. It may look similar to a large tabby cat, but it is an important predator of small to medium size prey and plays a key role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. It has a distinctive thick tail with black stripes and a black blunt tip. Scottish wildcats are found most commonly in woodland edges, where they have access to open hunting grounds, perfect for hunting rabbits, voles and mice. They’re also found in the margins of mountains and moorlands with rough grazing.

A wildcat stands among the primroses and pears through a gap in the trees

A History of Persecution

Once upon a time, wildcats were widespread across the British mainland. However, the wildcat has suffered centuries of persecution. Since medieval times, the wildcat was been hunted for sport and persecuted as “vermin”. From the mid-19th century, when many sport hunting estates were established, the wildcat was persecuted as part of a management strategy to increase numbers of trophy species, such as grouse and pheasant. The latest research suggests that, today, there are only 100-300 Scottish wildcats left, existing in small, isolated populations in northern Scotland.

A red grouse crouches in the tall blooming heather
A red grouse crouches in the tall blooming heather

A History of Persecution

Once upon a time, wildcats were widespread across the British mainland. However, the wildcat has suffered centuries of persecution. Since medieval times, the wildcat was been hunted for sport and persecuted as “vermin”. From the mid-19th century, when many sport hunting estates were established, the wildcat was persecuted as part of a management strategy to increase numbers of trophy species, such as grouse and pheasant. The latest research suggests that, today, there are only 100-300 Scottish wildcats left, existing in small, isolated populations in northern Scotland.

Current Threats

Today, the Scottish wildcat is at risk of extinction. It faces a myriad of threats, from hybridisation with domestic and feral cats, to habitat fragmentation and disturbance. Wildcats and domestic cats can produce viable offspring and this threatens Scottish wildcats with a process known as genetic introgression, whereby the gene pool of the wildcat is gradually replaced by that of the domestic cat. It also faces the threat of disease from and competition with the domestic cat, accidental killing through predator control intended for other species and from dogs, fluctuations in prey densities and road accidents.

A domestic cat lies on its owners bed

Current Threats

Today, the Scottish wildcat is at risk of extinction. It faces a myriad of threats, from hybridisation with domestic and feral cats, to habitat fragmentation and disturbance. Wildcats and domestic cats can produce viable offspring and this threatens Scottish wildcats with a process known as genetic introgression, whereby the gene pool of the wildcat is gradually replaced by that of the domestic cat. It also faces the threat of disease from and competition with the domestic cat, accidental killing through predator control intended for other species and from dogs, fluctuations in prey densities and road accidents.

A domestic cat lies on its owners bed

The Future

Though the future of the Scottish wildcat looks bleak, there are many scientists and conservationists working hard to protect the species. Extensive camera trapping surveys, control of feral cats and education and community outreach are underway to safeguard the future of the wildcat in Scotland. Though genetic rescue using wildcats from continental Europe is likely necessary, extensive captive breeding programmes are underway to save the gene pool of the Scottish wildcat. Our partner, Alladale Wilderness Reserve, is one of the organisations breeding Scottish wildcats, and in the last two years (2018 and 2019) they’ve welcomed five new kittens. Though there is still much to be done, it’s not too late to save Scotland’s most threatened mammal.

A wildcat kitten hidden behind a tree peers at the camera

The Future

Though the future of the Scottish wildcat looks bleak, there are many scientists and conservationists working hard to protect the species. Extensive camera trapping surveys, control of feral cats and education and community outreach are underway to safeguard the future of the wildcat in Scotland. Though genetic rescue using wildcats from continental Europe is likely necessary, extensive captive breeding programmes are underway to save the gene pool of the Scottish wildcat. Our partner, Alladale Wilderness Reserve, is one of the organisations breeding Scottish wildcats, and in the last two years (2018 and 2019) they’ve welcomed five new kittens. Though there is still much to be done, it’s not too late to save Scotland’s most threatened mammal.

A wildcat kitten hidden behind a tree peers at the camera

About The Author

About The Author

Hannah is the Lead Biologist at Mossy Earth. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Natural Sciences: Biology and Anthropology from Durham University and a Master’s degree in Conservation Biology from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology. She has been working in the field of environmental conservation in an effort to protect and restore the natural world. She has extensive experience of working in scientific research, wildlife rehabilitation and communication. Hannah, who is also a very talented photographer, uses her photography to document the natural world with the aim of bridging the gap with the human world. She seeks to engage people in conservation issues and inspire a global passion towards nature.

Sources & further reading

✅ for peer reviewed research

      1. 1. Conservation of the wildcat (Felis silvestris) in Scotland: Review of the conservation status and assessment of conservation activities"  

        U Breitenmoser, T Lanz and C Breitenmoser-Würsten 2019 - Wildcat Specialist Group

        1. 2.Wildcat occurrence in Scotland: food really matters– Silva et al. 2013 – Biodiversity Research Vol 19, Issue 2 – Wiley Online Library
      2.  
      3. 3. “Mapping the spatial configuration of hybridization risk for an endangered population of the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) in Scotland" - Kilshaw et al. 2015 - Vol 61, Issue 1 - Mammal Research

✅ for peer reviewed research

      1. 1. Conservation of the wildcat (Felis silvestris) in Scotland: Review of the conservation status and assessment of conservation activities"  

        U Breitenmoser, T Lanz and C Breitenmoser-Würsten 2019 - Wildcat Specialist Group

        1. 2.Wildcat occurrence in Scotland: food really matters– Silva et al. 2013 – Biodiversity Research Vol 19, Issue 2 – Wiley Online Library
      2.  
      3. 3. “Mapping the spatial configuration of hybridization risk for an endangered population of the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) in Scotland" - Kilshaw et al. 2015 - Vol 61, Issue 1 - Mammal Research