Scotland's Wildlife: Wildcat

Scottish wildcat

The wildcat has to be one of the most elusive animals in Scotland.

The popular press is often full of stories of mystical felines prowling the countryside, attacking livestock and pets but the true wildcat is something different.

The stories in the papers, if true, might refer to wild felines released irresponsibly into the wild by their owners after the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was passed in 1976. The real wildcats are native to this country and used to be widespread throughout the UK.

Through hunting and eradication of their habitat, wildcat numbers have dwindled to the point that they are now only found in remote parts of Highland Scotland. Interbreeding with domestic cats has led to a dilution of the gene pool and a significant reduction in the numbers of true wildcats.

Scottish wildcats look like larger, more muscular versions of the domestic tabby cat; they have a club-like tail and a thick-set body. The wildcat is perfectly adapted to its environment and is a formidable predator.

Their favourite prey is rabbit but they hunt for other small mammals, birds and fish.

Where to see them?

Scottish wildcat kitten

Given that wildcats live in some of the most remote parts of Scotland, are beautifully camouflaged and are timid, solitary and mostly nocturnal, it is no surprise that very few people have seen them in the wild.

It is estimated that there are around only 400 pure wildcats in Scotland but significantly larger numbers of hybrid wildcats (the result of mating with domestic cats). With this in mind, it is extremely unlikely that most people will ever see a genuine Scottish wildcat in the wild.

As a result the best place to see a wildcat close up is at wildlife centres such as the Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig, Inverness-shire.

When to see them?

You can see wildcats all year round at organised centres but in the wild the best time to try and catch sight of them is during the mating season (January to March) when they are most active.

Page first published on Friday 4th April 2008
Page last updated on Friday 17th October 2008

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FAST FACTS: SCOTTISH WILDCAT

Latin Name: Felis silvestris grampia
Gaelic Name: Cat fiadhaich.
Statistics: Head/body length 50-70cm, tail length 25-40cm, height 25-25cm. Average weight: males 5kg, females 3.5kg.
Physical Description: Very much like a larger version of a domestic tabby cat, which is thought to be descended from the wildcat. They are covered in dark brown stripes and possess a thick tail with a blunt end. The tail is banded with dark rings.
Scottish Distribution: The putative 'wildcat' is considered to be widespread north of the central belt.
Habitat: Coniferous and deciduous forest.
Diet: Mainly rodents, but they also hunt other mammals up to the size of hares and fawns, as well as birds, lizards, frogs and fish. They sometimes scavenge, and hide prey to return to later.
Young: The mating season runs from January to March and kittens are usually born in May.

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