Can Scotland's Feisty Wildcats Be Brought Back From the Brink?

Scottish wildcats were feared for centuries, but now conservationists are fearing for them. . Mark Bridger/Shutterstock

This may look like your average tabby house cat, but the Scottish wildcat is a native feline species that was around long before humans made a home on the British Isles. But it may not be around much longer.

The Scottish wildcat is an isolated population of the European wildcat that is known for its ferocity. There are old legends that the wildcats could even kill humans, a belief that lasted well into the 20th century. It makes perfect sense then that the species' nickname is the Highland Tiger.

While they aren't man-killers, they can do some serious damage while defending themselves. "[R]eliable reports over recent decades have included sightings of wildcats seeing off and seriously injuring golden eagles, German shepherd dogs, packs of terriers and humans," writes Save the Scottish Wildcat.

But does the Scottish wildcat have a fighting chance against extinction?

A very capable survivor

The biggest threat facing wildcats today is hybridization with feral domestic cats.
The biggest threat facing wildcats today is hybridization with feral domestic cats. Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

The population has declined steadily through hundreds of years of persecution by gamekeepers, loss of habitat, and also through hybridization with feral domestic cats. It's estimated that anywhere from 35 to 400 pure wildcats are left in the wild, and they are considered one of Great Britain's most endangered mammals.

But because they are solitary, elusive, and there are a high number of cats that are actually hybrids, estimating exactly how many pure wildcats are left has proven to be a difficult task.

Though disease is currently a concern, as feline immunodeficiency virus was confirmed in one of the areas where wildcats are known to live, hybridization with feral cats is the most pressing concern for the species right now.

"The wildcat is a very capable survivor and prefers to breed with other wildcats, but it's so outnumbered by domestic cats that hybridisation is inevitable. This means that over a few generations, those wildcat genes are lost, and you're just left with domestic and feral cats causing big problems for prey species and themselves," the Wildcat Haven's chief scientist, Dr Paul O'Donoghue, told the BBC.

Focusing on conservation

Conservationists hope that habitat preservation and TNR programs for domestic cats will help save the wildcat.
Conservationists hope that habitat preservation and TNR programs for domestic cats will help save the wildcat. davemhuntphotography/Shutterstock

Researchers believe genetically pure wildcats only exist in the most remote parts of the West Highlands. So, some conservationists are focusing their efforts here.

Wildcat Haven has established a working action plan to save the species. Their goals are huge, including setting up conservation areas, removing all feral cats from those conservation areas and establishing buffer zones to keep wildcats and domestic cats separated, and restoring natural forest habitat, among other ambitions.

Through live-trapping cats, neutering feral cats and identifying and radio-collaring wildcats, the project is making progress on creating a safe place to rebuild the number of pure Scottish wildcats in the Highlands. Currently, the trap-neuter-release or TNR work covers 800 square miles around the zones where wildcat populations are known to exist.

The project faces an enormous uphill battle, as everyone who has tried to protect a species from feral cats well knows. But since 2008, they have been engaging the local community to gain support and assistance in implementing the action plan. Wildcat Haven hopes to continue to expand the "safe zone" for wildcats until it reaches 7,000 square miles.

Meanwhile, Scottish Wildcat Action launched the largest ever survey for wildcats in January 2016. "The group has now set up motion-sensitive cameras to record any cats living in priority areas at Strathpeffer, Strathbogie, Strathavon, North Strathspey and the Angus glens. Work will continue in Morvern later in the year. More than 130 volunteers will check the cameras, gathering data that will help guide protection measures," reports The Scotsman.

If you want to learn more about these amazing animals, the documentary, "The Tigers of Scotland," focuses on the wildcats and the conservation efforts being made to prevent their extinction. The film was released to U.S. subscribers in November.

The future of the Scottish wildcat clings to the ongoing efforts of dedicated conservationists. But only time will tell if the efforts are enough to spare the species from extinction.