These Scottish wildcat kittens were photographed by Peter Sartore for the Photo Ark project. ©From the video “Rescued Scottish Wildcat Kittens Among Last of Their Kind,” National Geographic

Bears, lynx, wolves and wildcats used to roam the lands that today make up Great Britain. European brown bears, however, have been extinct there since at least the early Middle Ages—and possibly even earlier. British lynx disappeared around 700 A.D., due to hunting and habitat destruction. And by the turn of the 16th century, wolves were extinct in England and Wales. Although they managed to hold on for almost 200 more years in Scotland, regular hunts organized by nobility and extermination decrees by Scottish kings finally overcame them.

Today, of these large creatures once found in Great Britain, only the Scottish wildcat remains. It now lives exclusively in the remote Scottish Highlands—and that may not be for long.

But some recent conservation interventions, however, may give the Scottish wildcat the lifeline it needs.

Today, Scottish wildcats live exclusively in the remote Scottish Highlands. But for how long? ©Airwolfhound, flickr

Counting cats is complicated

Scottish wildcats are keen hunters, active at dawn and dusk. They commonly hunt small mammals, such as hares, mice and voles. While they look remarkably like domestic house cats, Scottish wildcats are larger—up to twice the size of domestics—and have thicker coats; mostly unbroken stripes; and blunt, black-tipped tails with distinct bands. And unlike domestic cats, they are not afraid of water. Scottish wildcat siblings have been observed dunking each other, a behavior also seen in jaguars.

Perhaps ironically, however, its domestic cousin is one of the biggest threats to the Scottish wildcat’s existence. Though wildcats avoid humans, large numbers of the animals have interbred with domestic cats, creating hybrids that cannot be truly classified as wildcats.

No one knows exactly how many true Scottish wildcats are left. Because of hybridization and misidentification with feral domestic cats, a quick count is difficult. Often, an in-depth analysis of an animal’s coat and genetics is required to determine how much wildcat is in its makeup. Currently, the wild population is thought to be somewhere between a couple dozen and a few hundred—with most agreeing that the smaller estimate is most accurate. Some put the exact number at 35.

Scottish wildcats are magnificent stealth hunters, pouncing on prey, often after a long and patient wait. They like to eat rabbits and other small mammals, such as mice and voles. ©Steve Childs, flickr

While the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the wildcat population in its “Least Concern” category, the organization states that if only nonhybrid animals were considered in the population count, the results might be very different. In fact, the IUCN reports that recent genetic testing and population sampling by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and conservation agencies has confirmed the majority of Scottish wildcats are now interbred with feral domestic cats.

Tackling the territory troubles of “Highlands tigers”

Human persecution has certainly played a large role in the decrease in the Scottish wildcat population. Now protected animals, Scottish wildcats—often called “Highlands tigers”—in the past were often considered to be pests by farmers and gamekeepers and were killed. Habitat destruction and being hunted for their fur added to the Scottish wildcats’ demise, resulting in the elimination of the animals from England and Wales in the 1800s. Diseases transferred from domestic felines have also played a role in reducing wildcat numbers, as have deaths by vehicles.

Several approaches have emerged to stave off these challenges. There are about 80 Scottish wildcats in captivity, and some zoos have initiated captive-breeding programs. The genetic profiles of zoo animals are better understood than of those in the wild, and researchers are working to breed enough suitable wildcats for eventual release. Captive releases, however, present some of their own problems: for example, taking animals out of nature impairs many of their instinctual behaviors and their ability to cope with threats, such as humans or roads.

Perhaps as few as 35 “Highlands tigers” remain in the wild, such as this one. ©From the video “Rescued Scottish Wildcat Kittens Among Last of Their Kind,” National Geographic

In what was described as a last-ditch effort to save Scottish wildcats as distinct animals, a 2018 plan proposed releasing captive European wildcats into the Scottish Highlands. This European subspecies is believed to be the most closely related to the Scottish one. Before the introduced animals can be released, however, the number of fertile feral and pet domestic cats will need to be reduced in order to prevent crossbreeding.

Wildcat Haven is working on that: the organization has started a neutering program that has created a 1,250-square-mile area, primarily on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula in the West Highlands, where resident wildcats face little threat of hybridization. Here—and in another spot in Scotland’s far north—nearly 300 domestic and feral cats have been neutered in the last three to four years.

A coalition of other conservation groups, universities and zoos, known as Scottish Wildcat Action, has a similar mission in other areas of the Highlands to trap, vaccinate, neuter and re-release domestic and hybrid cats. Since 2011, Scottish Wildcat Action has neutered 200 cats. The team also works to educate cat owners about the importance of neutering and spaying, and with gamekeepers, who often kill predators on their property.

At first glance, the Scottish wildcat may look like a cat you might keep as a pet, but they can grow up to twice the size, and are known for their striped coats and fierce attitudes. ©Peter Trimming, flickr

Of course, releasing new wildcats won’t make a difference if there’s no suitable habitat for them. Unfortunately, much of Scotland is deforested, farmed or populated with sheep or deer, which necessitates keeping the land without substantial tree cover or underbrush—the exact areas the wildcats need for hiding and making dens. Wildcat Haven is endeavoring to end logging in the Clashindarroch Forest, where a significant population of Scottish wildcats has been identified. More than 672,000 people have signed a petition asking for the cessation of logging there.

Feline fantasies for the future

Watch the video below from the National Geographic series Wildlife in Peril. It’s titled Rescued Scottish Wildcat Kittens Among Last of Their Kind, and in it you’ll see two, seven-week-old wildcat kittens—a brother and a sister—that were found in the wild in July 2018. Wildcat Haven rescued the cats when a Highlands resident spotted two sets of tiny eyes peering out of the forest.

These animals, whose mother had been killed, were found on the verge of death in a ditch. They were taken to a rehabilitation center in an enclosure more than an acre in size and nursed back to health with minimal human contact.

In December 2018, Edinburgh Zoo researchers proclaimed the Scottish wildcat “functionally extinct.” My hope is that they continue to thrive, somewhere in the Highlands. ©Peter Trimming, flickr

Wildcat Haven’s scientific advisor stated that the markings on the youngsters were “amazing” and that the kittens look far more like Scottish wildcats than any animal currently in a zoo. To photograph them, National Geographic employed Joel Sartore of the National Geographic Photo Ark, a project that documents and raises awareness about the perils faced by endangered species. A “photo tent” hid the photographer from the animals’ view.

At the time of the filming in 2018, the plan was to release these two kittens in the West Highlands, when they were old enough to survive in the wild.

I sincerely hope that they eventually were, and I fervently dream that they are still out there.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,