With Only 400 Left, Wildcat May Be on Its Ninth Life

James Owen in London
for National Geographic News
March 10, 2005

Common cats in northern Scotland could soon push their wild ancestors to extinction, conservationists warn. New research suggests only some 400 genuine Scottish wildcats remain in Britain after centuries of crossbreeding with feral cats (common domestic cats that live in the wild).

The Scottish wildcat's plight is highlighted in a recent survey by Mammals Trust UK. The London-based wildlife charity's report on the 2004 status of British mammal populations calls for urgent action to save the country's last native feline. Proposed measures include creating protected wildcat areas, neutering domestic cats, and establishing captive breeding programs.

Though wildcats were once widespread in Britain, their estimated numbers slumped to between 1,000 and 4,000 in the 1990s following centuries of persecution and habitat loss. Researchers now believe the picture is even bleaker, with as few as 400 purebred animals clinging on in the Scottish Highlands. This qualifies the wildcat as Britain's most endangered mammal.

Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) in England has spent ten years studying the elusive feline, which colonized the country soon after the last ice age. WildCRU researchers say the Scottish wildcat faces the same fate as the European lynx, a cat species that died out in Britain around 2,000 years ago.

Wildcat populations are known to be vulnerable to fragmentation of ancient forest habitats and vermin-control measures. For example, game-bird farmers are known to shoot wildcats that they mistake for feral cats, which are legal to shoot.

Conservationists, though, are most concerned by the hybridization caused by amorous encounters with wild-living domestic cats.

"We have to do something about those mongrel cats living in the wild," said WildCRU's Nobuyuki Yamaguchi. "Without tackling this problem, we probably can't secure the wildcat's future."

The World Conservation Union currently lists the Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia) as "vulnerable." This means the feline faces a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future.

A subspecies of the European wildcat, the Scottish wildcat is closely related to the domestic cat, which first arrived in Britain with the Romans.

Crossbred Mongrels

Because they have lived alongside each other for so long, true Scottish wildcats and crossbred mongrels are difficult to tell apart.

"Natural historians only started to describe wildcats in the 18th century—some 1,700 years after domestic cats had been brought to this country. So nobody really knows what a true wildcat was," Yamaguchi said.

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