Essential pet advice with vet Jo Gourlay

While researching last week’s article about predation by our domestic cats, I was saddened to learn that, according to the Scottish Wildcat Association, there are only 400 of these beautiful mammals remaining in the wild, making them critically endangered.

I found it fascinating to learn about this remarkable animal and thought an article explaining exactly what they are, how and where to identify one why they are under such threat would be a good idea.

It is believed that Scottish wildcats were originally European wildcats which became isolated approximately 9000 years ago when the English Channel formed at the end of the last ice age. Over time deforestation and hunting throughout Britain led to their all but extinction apart from in the Scottish Highlands.

In recent years, partly due to their loss of habitat, disease and vehicle collisions, this decline has continued, but the biggest current threat comes from dilution of their genes through cross-mating with the domestic feral cats that now vastly outnumber them.

An example of this cross-mating are Kellas cats (named after the Moray village where the first specimen was identified). These big black cats may be responsible for the sightings of “panthers” roaming the countryside due to their larger build and big cat gait. The tabby markings seen in Scottish wildcats are lost on these hybrids rather like the leopard spots on a black panther cannot be seen.

In addition to their extra size, there are other things you can look for to differentiate a Scottish wildcat from a big domestic tabby. The pattern of the tiger stripes is different with little or no spots or white patches. From a distance, the tail can be one of the most useful indicators as it is very thick with a black tip and perfect black rings circling the whole tail. The websites www.scottishwildcats.co.uk and www.highlandtiger.com have useful pages on identification as well as a wealth of other information. Work has been done to help identify them from afar because they cannot be killed except under licence as they are protected, so it’s important for gamekeepers to be able to tell them apart from feral cats worrying their game.

Wildcats tend to mainly eat rabbits or other small rodents anyway, but have been known to eat birds and potentially even catch fish. Their hunting skills are enhanced by their fantastic night vision and exceptional hearing.

They live in variable habitats but usually include some woodland in their territory. They are solitary animals only meeting to mate in the winter, although they will mate again if the first litter is lost. They are rarely vocal with the kittens even being silent when playing, but when in heat the female can be loud, which again may help add to the Highland folklore and legend surrounding them. It’s been suggested these wails may explain the mythological screaming banshee.

These are truly wild animals and supposedly even if hand-reared they will still remain untameable, unlike most other wild mammals. So if after reading this you would like to see a Scottish wildcat, the options are seeing one in captivity, such as at the Galloway Wildlife Conservation Park in Kirkcudbright, or keeping your eyes peeled when on a trip up north. If you are lucky enough to see one, it’s helpful to these organisations if you report it so they can monitor them.

Even in these parts it’s worth keeping half an eye out as a likely hybrid Scottish wildcat was seen near Stranraer, according to the Scottish Wildcat Association, so you never know!