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Issue 14 - Scotland's cool for cats

Scotland Magazine Issue 14
May 2004


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Scotland's cool for cats

Scottish wildcats are extremely rare, but it's still possible to spot them if you're patient enough, says Graham Holilday

By 1880, the wildcat was extinct in England, Wales and the south of Scotland due to human persecution and habitat destruction. Many wildlife buffs and hillwalkers spend a lifetime wandering the wilder regions of Scotland without ever encountering Scotland’s most elusive, shy and
beautiful mammal.

When the common tabby arrived in Britain some 2,000 years ago it promptly bred with the native wildcat population producing fertile hybrid cats. Nowadays, even wildcat experts find difficulty telling the hybrid from the pure bred in the wild.

Wildcats are now confined to the Central and Northern Highlands of the mainland, however the recent planting of conifer forests has helped increase numbers. The species gained protected stautus in 1981 and is recognised as a separate subspecies – Felis silvestris grampia.

However, they are still seen as pests by many landowners, gamekeepers and farmers. They are often slaughtered on sight even though they help control rodent and rabbit populations.

Unlike the domestic cat, the wildcat is a seasonal breeder. Females usually give birth to anything up to six kittens in May and young wildcats stay with their mothers for five months before leaving to fend for themselves.

There are thought to be only a few hundred left in Scotland and they are extremely difficult to breed in captivity, although the Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig co-ordinates a major captive breeding programme. Wildcats prefer upland forest, moorland, scrub and hill ground with plenty of rocky cairns for lying low during the day and raising kittens during the summer months.

If the ongoing reintroduction programme is to be successful the wildcats need more habitat on rough land with good numbers of rabbits and voles and away from towns and non-sympathetic shooting estates.

“South of the central belt they could not manage to get past the narrow waist of Scotland as you have Glasgow on one side, Edinburgh on the other plus loads of towns spread over this area,” says wildlife photographer Keith Ringland, who is thought to be the first photographer to capture a wildcat close up on film in March 1999.

“Any pioneering wildcats would interbreed with feral cats. By the time they got to suitable habitat, like the Southern Uplands, they would be so impure as to be no longer regarded as wildcats.”

Identifying the non-feral variety of these fantastic felines is no easy task, but there are a few features worth looking out for. The four distinct stripes around the nape should be wide and wavy. There are no white patches on the feet and the tail is bushier than a domestic cat and ends with a distinctive blunt, black tip.

You’ll need an early or late start to spot wildcats in Scotland as they are most active at dawn and dusk. During the day they lie up to digest the morning’s kill.

“The best areas to see wildcats are open rocky hills in places such as the Angus glens. In forests, they would be virtually impossible to spot, even though they will be present,” adds Ringland. “Tracking in the snow goes some way to finding these animals. Other good areas are Morayshire and Ross-shire.”

Highland Wildlife Park, Kincraig

See Scottish wildlife, past and present, including wildcats, in Scotland’s premier wildlife park located in the Spey Valley. The Highland Wildlife Park is a good stopping off point for a guaranteed sighting, such is the difficulty of seeing wildcats in the wild. Getting there: seven miles south of Aviemore. Travelling north on the A9 (Inverness), turn off for Kingussie/Kincraig, and follow the B1952 north. Travelling south on the A9 (Perth), turn off south of Aviemore for Kincraig and follow the B1952 through Kincraig to the Park.

Adults £7.50
Senior Citizens £6.00
Children & Students £5.00
Registered Disabled £5.00
Family Ticket £25.00
(2 adults+2 children+1 free child or 1 free OAP)
Loan of audio guide and free guidebook included.
Tel: +44 (0)1540 651 270

Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve, Newtonmore

The reserve is full of native woodland; birch, alder, willow, rowan and oak and is home to wildcats. Getting there: On the A86 road between Newtonmore and Spean Bridge, 10 miles west of Laggan. Nearest train stations are at Newtonmore and Tulloch.

Tel: +44 (0)1528 544 265.

Wildcat Trail

The Wildcat trail is a 10 km walk which encircles the village of Newtonmore in Invernessshire. From one point on the trail a rocky outcrop can be seen where a wildcat gave birth to a litter of kittens.

Highland Wild Encounters
22nd - 30th May

A week long wildlife watching festival throughout Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross. For the third year running, expert rangers from the Highland Council Ranger Service, RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage and local wildlife guides will lead walks, minibus tours and boat trips.
or contact:
Tel: +44 (0)1549 402 638

More infomation on wildcats: