By Amy Whetstone, Qualifications and Skills Officer at the Society of Biology.
The Scottish wildcat, Felis silvestris grampia, is an iconic species with a long history of roaming the British landscape. The Highland tiger, as the wildcat is otherwise affectionately known, previously ranged across the whole of mainland Britain but is now restricted to the Scottish Highlands. A subspecies of the European wildcat, Felis silvestris silvestris, they became isolated from their cousins around 9000 years ago during the formation of the English channel.
Reports from the Scottish Wildcat Association have estimated that there could be as few as 35 pure Scottish wildcats remaining, drastically reducing the 400 wildcats that have been suggested to exist in recent times. If this figure is correct it would put our wildcat in severe danger of extinction and alongside some of the most endangered species in the world!
But what are the main challenges facing the Scottish wildcat?
Having survived hunting and persecution by humans for hundreds of years, the current threats to the species include loss of habitat due to deforestation, population fragmentation and feline diseases. Roads, cities and other human made features act as barriers to wildcat dispersal and contribute to their decline through road kill.
The biggest challenge for conservationists is however hybridisation; Scottish wildcats will readily mate with domestic cats and produce fertile offspring. In order to save the Scottish wildcat from extinction it is essential to tackle the large numbers of feral cats roaming Scotland and to stop further dilution of the wildcat gene pool. Large scale neutering of feral cats, alongside subsidized inoculations and neutering of domestic cats, has been carried out by the SSPCA and Cats Protection in order to reduce this risk.
Whilst similar to a domestic tabby cat, the wildcat is stockier with distinctive black bands, a thick bushy tail with a black, blunt tip. It can however be extremely difficult for scientists to be confident that an individual is a pure bred wildcat and not a hybrid. The University of Chester, with funding from People’s Trust for Endangered Species, are currently developing a genetic marker system to confidently identify wildcats and to develop a conservation strategy for the future of Britain’s only remaining wildcat.