Scottish Wildcat- The highland tiger
By Helen Williams
From the age of about four, I had the enormous privilege of being able to holiday in Scotland for several weeks at a time, nearly every year! As an adult I still take as many opportunities as possible to visit Scotland, my last was to seek out dinosaur footprints near Staffin on the Isle of Skye. The wildlife spotting has always been outstanding. I can easily recall my siblings and I playing down by the sea, seeing who could skip stones the furthest, where we would often catch sight of otters swimming amongst the seaweed. Over the years on many a boat or wildlife trip I’ve been able to appreciate the majestic sea eagle, puffins, gannets, pine martens and other outstanding wildlife. On other occasions I have ran down to the beach and braved the cold North Sea to find common and grey seals swimming just out of my reach.
My journeys through the North West of the Highlands were always energised by occurrences of red deer, the shear majesty and the magnificent size always mesmerises me. I have witnessed the salmon leaping in Sutherland and seen porpoises and bottlenosed dolphins with a rare glimpse of the odd minke whale within the Inner Moray Firth. Scotland for me is a marvellous country with remarkable wildlife.
All this wonderful wildlife and yet I still hope that one day I will be fortunate enough to spy Scotland’s most vulnerable species of wildlife, to date it has eluded me - the Scottish wild cat (Felis silvestris), also known as the Highland tiger. Recognised by the IUCN as being globally in decline this amazing carnivore mostly feeds on rabbits and other small mammals and has an essential role in the ecosystem (Yamaguchi et. al., 2015).
Threats include hybridisation, disease, habitat loss and persecution. Sadly this is a similar story to so very much of Scotland’s wildlife but with hybridisation concerns as a dangerous twist to this species fate (Kilshaw et al, 2016). There are thousands of hybrid cats in existence in Scotland whose genetics do not meet the right criteria to be called F. silvestris (Senn et. al., 2019). There are thought to be fewer than 300 of these pure and striking looking felines left in Scotland (Kilshaw et al, 2014), although numbers could be as low as 35 (Wildcathaven, 2010).
The good news is there are several campaigns and conservation movements working to try and ensure the species are rescued from extinction. Education programmes are varied and ongoing aimed to inform the public and gamekeepers of their plight and why they should be protected and not persecuted. Awareness schemes are in place to encourage cat owners to be responsible and neuter, inoculate and chip their pets in attempt to slow down cross breeding. Other schemes are more hands on such as the RSPB and volunteers trapping suspected feral hybrids and carrying out neutering and inoculations in an attempt to protect the wild cat population (RSPB, 2019). Other organisations are working on re-introducing captive bred populations to where the species should belong (RZSS, 2020); talks and plans are even underway to return these superb hunters back into England via lowlands for the first time in 300 years.
The Scottish wild cat (F. silvestris) has subtle differences to the average pet cat, a slightly wider and flatter head, sideways pointing ears, blunt ended tail and distinguishable striped coat recognisable to an experienced eye. With the loss of wolves and lynx to Scotland, these cats are the last remaining large carnivorous predator and they still hold a vital place in the ecosystem. They are in real and immediate danger of extinction and require an urgent, combined and harmonised effort from all to help secure them any kind of future.
Kilshaw, K., Montgomerey, R.A., Campbell, R.D., Hetherington, D.A., Johnson, P.J., Kitchener, A.C., Macdonald, D.W. and Millspaugh, J.J. (2016). Mapping the spatial configuration of hybridization risk for an endangered population of the European wildcat(Felis silvestris silvestris) in Scotland. Mammal Research 61(1), 1-11.
Kilshaw, K., Johnson, P.J., Kitchener, A.C. and Macdonald, D.W. (2014) Detecting the elusive Scottish wildcat Felis silvestris silvestris using camera trapping. Oryx 01/2014
Photos by Heidi Crundwell & Rhodri Phillips