Felis silvestris grampia look much like domestic cats, but they are larger and more robust-looking.They have distinctive bushy ringed tails with blunt black tips and thick, heavily marked coats that are fairly dark in colour and striped. Juveniles have more distinctive markings than adults.The adult winter coat is shed in favour of a shorter summer coat during the spring moult in April. The thicker winter coat grows during the autumn moult in September.Other features include:
- males are typically larger than females
- the length from the head to the tip of the tail is about 90cm in males, 82cm in females
- the dorsal stripe on lower back stops at root of tail
- they have distinct, aligned tail bands
- the tail tip is blunt and black
- they have unbroken flank stripes
The European form of the wildcat is the oldest wildcat species and is descended from Martelli’s cat (Felis [silvestris] lunensis) about 250,000 years ago (Kurtén 1968). The European wildcat colonised Britain after the end of the last ice age, over 9,000 years ago, when there was still a land bridge to the continent.The cats followed the spread of suitable habitat and prey, and by the time Britain became an island they occurred over its length and breadth.During their millennia of isolation, the British wildcats became a separate subspecies: Felis silvestris grampia.Molecular analysis indicates that the African wildcat diverged from the European form only about 20,000 years ago (Randi and Ragni 1991).The domestic cat derived from African wildcats 4,000–8,000 years ago (Clutton-Brock 1981, Davis 1987, Kitchener 1992).
Although once widespread in Britain, the Wildcat (Felis silvestris), a close relative of the domestic cat, is now found there only in northern Scotland (subspecies Felis silvestris grampia), where it is uncommon. Felis silvestris, however, still has a broad distribution elsewhere in Eurasia and Africa.
Comprehensive information about the Scottish Wildcat (including many images) can be seen at the Highland Tiger website.
- weight: males 3.8–7.3kg, females 2.4–4.7kg
- length (head to tail tip): males 82–98cm, females 73–90cm
Mating takes place in February to March and the gestation period is about 65 days.Litters of 2–4 kittens (although it can vary from 1–7) are born between April and May in a den amongst rocks or in an abandoned fox earth, badger sett or rabbit warren. Births later in the year are possible if an earlier litter is lost.The mother brings live prey to the den from about 3 weeks, and stops feeding with her milk at around 6–7 weeks.Kittens may follow their hunting mother from 10 weeks old.They start to leave their mothers at about 5 months to find their own home ranges over the winter, but continue growing until they are about 10 months old.Both males and females can breed at 1 year, although males in particular are unlikely to breed until they have established their own home range.
Wildcats favour wooded landscapes with a mosaic of habitats especially semi-natural woodland, conifer plantation, scrub, moorland and pastureland.They are usually found below 500m, but have been recorded at over 800m above sea level.
The cats are carnivorous, but eat a wide range of food including:
- small mammals
The most recent population estimate for the Scottish wildcat was published by Harris et al (1995) who estimated 3,500 wildcats in Scotland based on distribution data and extrapolation of radio tracked data.There are various sightings from across Scotland and genetic testing of any dead wildcats helps scientists evaluate the population.Current estimates suggest there may be less than 400 pure bred Scottish wildcats left in the wild.
Life History and Behavior
Males have larger home ranges than females, and may overlap with more than one female. There is little overlap between home ranges of wildcats of the same sex.Home range size varies according to prey availability in the landscape:
- in the eastern Highlands where rabbits are numerous, male home range size is typically around 4.6km2, with female home range size at around 1.8km2
- in the western Highlands, where rabbit densities are lower, average male home range size in winter is around 14.3km2, with females at 9km2
- inter-breeding (hybridisation) is reducing the number of pure-bred wildcats - this makes defining a true wildcat extremely difficult
- diseases such as feline leukaemia virus are spreading and have already been detected in wildcats in Scotland