Liz Bonnin answers your wildcat questions
Guest blog: After her adventures on last night's Autumnwatch, Liz Bonnin readily admits to being obsessed with wildcats. So she was more than happy to hop straight off the plane from Scotland and answer your questions about the elusive felid.
scotlandgal asks: Why is it that the wildcat is endangered? Is it due to hunting or is it due to lose of habitat?
The wildcat is endangered by many things, all of which are caused by man. Habitat loss and population fragmentation (small pockets of wildcats which can't interbreed because of separation due to major roads, train lines and cities), persecution for fur and also as a predator on gaming estates (wildcats are often caught in snares destined for foxes or shot by mistake), and disease from domestic/feral cats.
The biggest threat, though, is hybridisation: wildcats mating with the domestic cat species. This could result in the complete loss of the true wildcat.
Nicola Main asks: What kind of things are being done to stop domestic cats from breeding with the wildcats and how big of a problem is this for the wild population?
It's clear to me that hybridisation is the biggest problem. There are believed to be over 100,000 feral cats (domestic cats living wild) in the Scottish highlands and only 400 wildcats, which means that the chances of a feral cat breeding with a wildcat are extremely high.
Wildcats are a different species to domestic cats so it is very important to preserve wildcat genes in order to ensure their survival. Responsible cat ownership is one of the major objectives of the wildcat conservation effort: making sure cat owners neuter their cats, put a collar on them so they are not mistaken for feral cats and also keep their cats in at night. The Cats Protection charity also sets traps to catch feral cats and carry out a trap, neuter, return practice, which should help reduce the instances of feral-wildcat matings.
natureDeirdre asks: I've heard that there have been sightings of the Scottish Wildcat on the Isle of Mull. Considering this is an island would it be easier to protect the cat here from its biggest threat - breeding with pet moggies?
That's a very good point. This idea has been used to try and save some other endangered species - for example the kakapo, a beautiful flightless parrot from New Zealand. There have certainly been reports of wildcats on some islands but the problem is that there are domestic cats there too, so the same measures need to be instigated as on the mainland - neutering of feral cats and responsible domestic cat ownership - in order to stop the two species interbreeding.
Since they are islands it may be easier to effectively neuter all domestic cat species as there will inevitably be less cats there than on the mainland. The wildcat population would then prosper.
It may then be possible to translocate some known true wildcat individuals from the mainland to the islands and vice-versa in order to keep the gene pool diverse. One problem of small island populations is that they are sometimes not genetically diverse enough and this may affect the health of that population.
Alex Berryman asks: Just wondering: Can wild cats swim? Or are they like domestic cats, who hate it?
Yes indeed, wildcats have been known to swim readily if there is a good reason to, usually if there is some very tasty prey across a burn or loch! They are pretty efficient at fishing too, but unlike specialised fishing cats that dive for their prey, wildcats scoop out passing fish, just like kittens scoop a ball in the air over their heads and then turn to pounce on it.
Grebelet asks: They are known as Scottish Wildcats, but is there any evidence that they might also be in other parts of the UK? I seem to remember that they were once wider spread, but as they are so elusive could they still be around - and possibly a clue to the large cat sightings?
The European wildcat recolonised Britain after the last ice age 9,000 years ago and flourished in the then densely forested landscape (its scientific name, Felis silvestris, means woodland cat). But the rise in domesticated cat introduction by humans and the persecution of the wildcat for its fur, followed by destruction of forests to make way for agriculture, industry and sporting estates, led to the demise of the wildcat and by the late 1900s they were confined to Scotland.
The present day urbanized and industrialized central belt in Scotland is believed to act as physical barrier to the southwards movement of the wildcats. Wildcats don't trust people very much (which is hardly surprising) and just don't like intensely populated areas or crossing busy roads.
But I think it is still likely that one or two individuals do get through every now and then and I believe that "big cat" sightings are most likely to be either true wildcats or wildcat hybrids - which have been documented to be black at times (as with the famous Kellas cat, named after the village in Scotland in which it was found).
mick binnion asks: Now that we have a multi-agency defence strategy for the conservation of the Scottish wildcat, will it be enough to stop the very real threat to our wild population from disease, such as feline leukemia and flu, as the genetically pure wild population have little or no immunity?
As is the case with a lot of wildlife, exposing wildcats to diseases which they are naive to, like feline leukaemia and cat flu (via domestic cats that are more resilient to these diseases) can prove disastrous, since it is impossible to treat feline diseases in the wild and whole pockets of wildcats can be wiped out at a time.
There are some wonderfully dedicated organisations and individuals working towards better research of these risks, more thorough inoculations programmes and health checks of wild populations in the future, but I have to admit that the funding dedicated to such causes can be paltry compared to other national agendas.
There is still a lot of work needed to ensure we do not lose this iconic species, endangered because of human activity and oversight. There are people just waiting to be given the chance to do more for these wonderful mammals. But it pains me to say that unfortunately conservation can sometimes struggle to meet urgent needs like this one due to funding issues.
joe asks: Does the fur of wild cats get thicker in winter, and do they lose fur in summer?
Yes, wildcats do have a winter coat - which should be starting to grow around the start of November, and which they moult in April. The wildcat's fur is religiously cleaned, with a downy inner layer to keep in the warmth and an rougher outer layer to keep out the rain and cold. After the last ice age, the Scottish wild cat also adapted to its environment in a different way to its European counterpart by becoming bigger, stockier and with thicker fur.
H-J asks: We adopted a cat many years ago when we lived in Scotland. After seeing your piece on the Scottish Wildcats, I'm convinced that our cat is part wildcat. He has the bushy tail with thick black rings and a blunt end. Do you know how we would be able to confirm this?Does his thick black dorsal line end at the top of the tail or does it continue to the end of the tail? If it's the former, it's highly likely your cat has a strong wild cat genetic component. The Scottish Wildcat Association has an online guide to IDing wildcats.
But if you were able to adopt him he's obviously got domestic genes (pure wildcats are famed for being untameable). The only real way to ascertain his genetic makeup is to carry out DNA analysis. So far, scientists have been able to analyse wildcat mitochondrial DNA (the maternal line), which only gives half the picture.
But very shortly they will be able to analyse the paternal DNA too, which will be very valuable indeed in the conservation efforts. This test can be carried out on sample blood, scats (poo) or hairs with the follicles present.
laura cooke asks: It is possible that a kindle of domestic kittens can have more than one sire. Is this possible for wild cats?
Yes, since it is possible for domestic cats, it is believed that the same can be said for wildcats. They are, after all, related. The European wildcat (which gave rise to the Scottish wildcat) migrated out of Europe during the ice age 20,000 years ago and set up different populations in various parts of the world. One of these was the near eastern wildcat, from which all domestic cats originated.
When trying to make sense of the black kitten we found on Autumnwatch, we discussed the possibility of the pure wildcat mother mating with a pure male and giving rise to our brown kitten that looks very like a pure wildcat, and then mating with a hybrid or feral cat and giving rise to the black kitten. It was a long shot but worth discussing!
If you have a question for next week's guest presenter, wildlife recordist Chris Watson, please post it here.