Grey/brown fur with dark stripes; thick tail, with blunt tip.
Head/body length: average about 56cm; tail about 29cm.
Weight: kittens 100-160g at birth; adult males average 5kg; females 4kg.
Wildcats are confined to Scotland, north of Glasgow and Edinburgh, but are absent from the Scottish Islands. They prefer areas with varied habitats on the edge of moorland, with pasture, scrub and forests. High mountains, where prey is scarce, and intensively farmed lowland regions are avoided. In winter, bad weather drives wildcats from mountain and moor into more sheltered wooded valleys.
Wildcats are shy and wary animals active at night, mainly around dawn and dusk. Rabbits, hares and small mammals are their principal prey, but quite large birds and animals freshly killed on the roads may also be taken. They sometimes store, or cache, uneaten prey by hiding it under vegetation. During the day, and in periods of heavy rain and snow, wildcats lie up in dens located amongst boulders and rocky cairns, or in old fox earths, badgers setts, peat hags, or tree roots.
Wildcats are solitary and territorial, living at a low population density; there may be one cat to three square kilometres in good habitats but only one cat to 10 square kilometres in less favourable areas. Urine sprayed on boulders and tree trunks and droppings deposited in prominent places, are used by wildcats to mark their territories.
Mating generally takes place in February and litters of 2-6 kittens are born in May. Though litters may be born until August, wildcats produce only one litter a year. Kittens are weaned at 12 weeks and stay with their mother until about five months old. Although wildcats may live 10-12 years in the wild, most seem to die at an early age.
Wildcats used to be found throughout mainland Britain (they have never occurred in Ireland) but, due to persecution and clearance of wooded land, have declined over several centuries. They disappeared from southern England in the 16th Century and the last one recorded from northern England was shot in 1849. Wildcats almost became extinct in Britain in the early years of this century but, following reduced persecution at the time of the first world war, and helped by more forestry plantations, they recolonised parts of Scotland. However, this recovery now seems to have slowed down. The urbanised habitat of the central lowlands of Scotland may present a barrier to further dispersal. A recent survey failed to find any evidence of wildcats south of the industrial belt of Scotland, so that reports of wildcats further south probably refer to domestic cats gone wild.
Although increasing afforestation helped the spread of wildcats, as forest plantations mature they become less suitable for the small mammals on which wildcats prey. Forestry management to encourage wildcats should therefore aim to diversify the age of plantations.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981 and 1988) now gives strict legal protection to wildcats and their dens; it is an offence to take or kill one except under licence. Despite this protection, illegal trapping and shooting are still major causes of death of wildcats. Others die in road traffic accidents and wildcats are still at risk from illegal poisoning.
Inter-breeding with domestic cats gone wild (known as feral cats) could pose an insidious threat to the wildcats' survival in Britain by changing the species' genetic identity. Wildcats are also at risk from diseases of domestic cats such as feline leukaemia.
Where can I see a wildcat?
Because they are so shy and nocturnal, wildcats are very difficult to see in the wild. However, several zoos keep them, including Palacerigg Country Park near Cumbernauld, Glasgow, the Norfolk Wildlife Park and the Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig.
If wildcats have inter-bred with domestic cats, are there any real wildcats left in
Although hybrid cats are widely distributed in certain areas of Scotland, there still seem to be wildcats that show little if any signs of inter-breeding with domestic cats.
Are there any wildcats in England or Wales?
No, wildcats are confined to central and northern Scotland. However, domestic cats that live independently of humans in the wild, do occur throughout Britain. These are not wildcats and never will become wildcats.
Corbet G.B. & Harris S. (1991) The Handbook of British Mammals. (3rd edn.). Blackwell, Oxford.
Easterbee, N., Hepburn, L.V. & Jefferies, D.J. (1991) A Survey of the Status and Distribution of the Wildcat in Scotland 1983-1987. Scottish Natural Heritage, Edinburgh.
Kitchener, A. (1991) The Natural History of Wildcats. Christopher Helm.
Morris, P.A. (1993) A Red Data Book for British Mammals. The Mammal Society, London.
Tomkies, M. (1991) Wildcats. Whittet Books, London.