Each year, over a million tourists descend on northern Scotland, where many hope to catch a glimpse of the legendary Loch Ness Monster. And yet, roaming the countryside is another mysterious beast, one that’s every bit as interwoven into the area’s cultural fabric. It’s a remarkable predator whose bold stripes and sheer ferocity have earned it the nickname “highlands tiger.” Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Scottish wildcat.
There was a time when many native cats roamed England, Wales, and Scotland. Fourteen thousand years ago, UK forests were home to cave lions. By the time rising sea levels separated Great Britain from the rest of Europe around 8200 years ago, a few Eurasian cat species had settled there. Another feline resident was the lynx, an animal that vanished from the island after the 7th century CE.
At some point, a population of so-called wildcats was also established in Britain. Comparable in both size and appearance to housecats, these creatures are still at large on the island—although habitat loss and overhunting has restricted their range to the northernmost recesses of Scotland. With Britain’s lynx and lions long gone, Scottish wildcats are the only indigenous felines left in the United Kingdom.
2. THERE’S SOME DEBATE OVER HOW THE SCOTTISH WILDCAT SHOULD BE CLASSIFIED.
You’ll sometimes hear it said that this animal is a subspecies of the wildcat, also known as Felis silvestris. DNA testing has shown that the kitten currently napping on your sofa is itself a subspecies of wildcat, one that scientists call Felis silvestris catus.
It’s believed that the common housecat first emerged around 9000 to 10,000 years ago. The popular pet is directly descended from Felis silvestris lybica, or the “African wildcat.” As its name implies, the animal can be found throughout Africa, plus certain parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Were you to travel eastward from there, you might encounter the aptly-named Asiatic wildcat (Felis silvestris ornate), another subspecies that roams from Central Asia to western India.
This brings us to the European wildcat, Felis silvestris silvestris. Because of its unusually thick coat, the beast looks much bulkier than its Asiatic and African relatives. Also, while the Asian wildcat essentially mates year-round, the European variety only breeds from January to March.
So where do highland tigers fit into the family portrait? Some mammal experts believe that the Scottish wildcat should be regarded as its own subspecies, Felis silvestris grampia. Proponents of this argument point out that Britain’s wildcats look atypically large when compared to those living across the English Channel. However, other scientists disagree and write off the Scottish felines as nothing more than an isolated population of European wildcats.
With their strong jaws, acute night vision, and ears that can rotate independently, highland tigers are formidable predators. Like many cats, they’re also opportunistic feeders. Those living in eastern Scotland primarily dine on rabbits, which can represent up to 70 percent of their diet [PDF]. But in the west, where rabbits are less common, wildcats mostly eat mice and voles instead. Wildcats will also eat assorted birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and small mammals. In rare instances, they’ve even been known to bring down deer fawns. Most prey is killed with a bite to the back of the neck, which either crushes or severs its spine. To dispatch bigger targets, wildcats will often clamp their jaws down onto the windpipe.
4. THEY USE GRASS TO FIGHT PARASITES.
Wildcats are known eat long blades of grass every so often. The dense plants help clear a cat’s digestive tract by forcing indigestible bones, fur, and feathers out of its system. Swallowing grass is also a good way to dislodge parasitic worms, which the cats regularly contract by eating raw meat.
The highland tiger has an aggressive reputation. John George Wood, a 19th-century science enthusiast, once wrote that “When caught in a trap, [wildcats] fly without hesitation at any person who approaches them, not waiting to be assailed. I have heard many stories of their attacking and seriously wounding a man, when their escape has been cut off.”
Although Wood’s sources may have been exaggerating, the point remains: Wildcats shouldn't be messed with. And yet, they almost never lash out at human beings without warning. Should you make a wildcat feel threatened, the animal’s first response will be to stare you down, arch its back, and hiss like an angry tabby. If that doesn’t work, the feline will start moving toward you, stamping its feet all the while. Known as a “mock charge,” this maneuver is designed to make the cat look as intimidating as possible—if only for a second or two. A moment’s hesitation on the attacker’s part may be all that a cat needs in order to escape.
If all else fails, the cats can bite and claw with unbelievable fierceness. More often than not, the feisty little creatures drive off their foes, sometimes inflicting nasty lacerations in the process. According to the Scottish Wildcat Association, large dogs, park rangers, and ill-prepared veterinarians are among the most common recipients of “non-hunting wildcat attacks.”
6. THE LAST ENGLISH WILDCATS MAY HAVE DISAPPEARED IN THE 19TH CENTURY.
The name “Scottish wildcat” is something of a misnomer. After all, for thousands of years, the animals were distributed throughout Great Britain. Unfortunately, human interference has driven them to the brink of extinction. The Scottish wildcat didn’t enjoy any sort of legal protection until the UK classified it as a protected species in 1988. Before that, trappers on the island had been harvesting their valuable coats since ancient times. As if this weren’t bad enough, the cats were believed to kill livestock en masse, so farmers deliberately killed them. Centuries of persecution—combined with deforestation—drove the felines into Scotland’s most sparsely-populated areas. The last documented sighting of a wildcat on English soil took place in 1849.
To many Scots, the highland tiger is a national icon. Nowhere is this fact more apparent than within Scotland’s familial clan system. Among many others, Clan Mackintosh, Clan MacBean, and Clan MacPherson have each incorporated a wildcat into their respective crests. The groups' motto is “Touch not the cat bot a glove,” with the word bot meaning “without” in this context. Sounds like good advice (although some consider it to be even more poetic, and say that the one without the glove is the cat—i.e. claws ready to go).
8. POOP HELPS THEM COMMUNICATE.
Solitary by nature, adult wildcats generally give each other a wide berth outside of the breeding season. Data collected from radio collars have revealed that an average female spends most of its time within a one-square-mile home range. Males are thought to have similar habits.
Your typical highland tiger buries most of its own scat. However, some droppings will be intentionally left exposed in order to mark territory. This is also done for the benefit of other wildcats. By smelling the dung, a passing cat can assess the leaver’s sex, age, and reproductive status.
The single greatest threat to the Scottish wildcat’s continued existence is no longer habitat loss or reckless hunting. Today, the real problem is genetic pollution, since the wildcat and housecat can successfully interbreed. Such encounters produce hybrid kittens—and unlike (most) mules, these cats are capable of having babies of their own.
Rampant hybridization has contaminated the Scottish wildcat gene pool to an alarming degree. Some naturalists estimate that just 35 “pure” highland tigers are left in the wild. Within a few generations, the animal could be rendered effectively extinct.
Further complicating matters is a potential epidemic of mistaken identity. To the untrained eye, the Scottish wildcat looks quite similar to the “tabby” breed of housecat. Concerned citizens are having a hard time telling the highland tiger apart from the very animal that’s wiping it out. Under the wrong circumstances, mistaking one for the other may have serious legal repercussions.
“The Scottish wildcat is enshrined as a protected species in British law,” notes conservationist David MacDonald in the above video. “For the law to function … it has to be possible to identify what is a Scottish wildcat.” In the 1990s, government officials tried to prosecute a gamekeeper who had been accused of shooting three wildcats. Yet, because an expert couldn’t confirm that the victims were, in fact, highland tigers and not tabbies, the charge was dismissed.
Fortunately, though, there are a few subtle differences between the wildcat and its domestic counterpart. The most obvious among them has to do with the shape of the tail. Whereas wildcats possess thick, bushy tails, tabbies have fairly slender ones. Also, you’ll never find a purebred highland tiger with spots on its back. Another key difference: In wildcats, the black line that runs down the spine terminates at the base of the tail, and in tabbies, it extends all the way to the tail’s tip [PDF].
10. SOME WANT TO CLONE WILDCATS.
How do you rescue an endangered animal that’s breeding its way into oblivion? Dr. Bill Ritchie sees cloning as a step in the right direction. Ritchie became world-famous as a member of the team that produced Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal to ever be created from an adult cell. In 2011, Ritchie started to research the possibility of cloning some purebred wildcats. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland supported the idea, but as of this writing, no attempt to actually follow through has been made.
In May, the Scottish wildcats at the Chester Zoo in Cheshire—female Einich and male Cromarty—welcomed an adorable kitten, the first to be born at the zoo as part of its Scottish wildcat breeding program. "The arrival of the new kitten is a major boost to the increasingly important captive population in Britain," Tim Rowlands, Chester Zoo’s curator of mammals, said in a statement. "Conservation breeding in zoos is a key element in the wider plan to conserve the species in the UK and, drawing on the unique skills, knowledge and knowhow of the carnivore experts working here, we’re breeding Scottish wildcats to increase the safety net population and hope to release their offspring into the highlands of Scotland in the future."
Above is video of the kitten emerging from the den for the first time. We think you'll agree it's pretty adorable.