Our only native wild cat, and part of our natural heritage, they have been persecuted for centuries, lost much of their woodland habitat and now face an ever greater threat of interbreeding with domestic and feral cats.
Interbreeding (hybridisation) mixes the genes of these two species, resulting in the loss of the genetic identity of the wildcat. The number of true wildcats remaining in Scotland is estimated to be as few as 35 individuals (according to latest figures released by the Scottish Wildcat Association), making it the rarest mammal in the world, but it is hard to be sure. And until we know where the pure populations of wildcats remain it is not possible to protect them fully. Unfortunately the offspring are not easily distinguishable from feral cats and so it looks like the Scottish wildcat may be heading for imminent extinction.
We urgently need to know how many of these animals are left and to do that we need a sure way of determining whether an individual is a wildcat or a wild cat. If no genetically pure wildcats survive in the wild, only hybrids, then the hybrids would take on great importance because they would be the only remaining source of Scottish wildcat genes. On the other hand, interbreeding may only occur in areas of high human and domestic cat density in which case the control of hybrids and feral cats to prevent them from interbreeding with wildcats in these areas would be a high priority.
To help wildcats we are concentrating effort on finding a practical way of identifying the remaining true wildcats and effectively monitoring them. Dr Paul O’Donoghue of the University of Chester, is developing a genetic marker system that will identify pure wildcats from feral cats or their hybrids. The marker system will be used in conjunction with an existing diagnostic tool that uses coat markings to help work out whether a particular animal is in fact a Scottish wildcat, a hybrid or a domestic cat. But the genetic test will be the final arbiter. The test will be developed using samples from known wildcat museum specimens, European wildcats and domestic cats. Once developed, a large-scale project will be undertaken to assess as many wild animals as possible. All the cats that are trapped will be tested and any individuals that turn out not to be wildcats will be neutered before being released again.
Wildcats are a challenging species to help. They are solitary and territorial and mostly about at night, dawn or dusk, making them difficult to monitor and study. They favour the remote edges of mountains and moorland where there is rough grazing and often woodland and crops. Just a single litter of up to seven kittens is born in April or May and they can fall prey to golden eagles, foxes, stoats and pine martens before they are old enough to leave their mother and establish their own home range.
The numbers speak for themselves. Finding out where wildcats are and aren’t thriving and understanding their needs is an urgent priority. We can’t make any meaningful progress helping this elegant species if we don’t know where to start. And we are in danger of losing a vital part of our natural heritage.
Please help us find out how many true wildcats are left in Scotland and where they are and give wildcats a chance of survival by sending your donation today. It will be put it to immediate good use.