The Scottish wildcat, also known as the Highland tiger, is a subspecies of the European wildcat that is native to Scotland. It is considered to be one of the rarest and most endangered mammals in the UK, with an estimated population of fewer than 400 individuals remaining in the wild.
The Scottish wildcat is thought to have evolved from the European wildcat around 5000 years ago, after the last ice age. It is a small, carnivorous mammal that is closely related to domestic cats, but is larger and more robust in build. Its distinctive features include a thick, bushy tail, striped legs, and a reddish-brown coat with dark stripes and spots.
Historically, the Scottish wildcat was found throughout Scotland, but today its range has been severely reduced, mainly due to habitat loss and fragmentation. The remaining wildcats are primarily found in the Scottish Highlands, where they inhabit forested areas and moorland.
Hunting mainly active at dawn and dusk (crepuscular) they feed on rabbits and small voles but may take larger prey such as pheasants and other wild birds. They hunt using their formidable eyesight, an acute sense of smell and their sensitive whiskers.
It is difficult to estimate the exact population size of the Scottish wildcat due to its elusive nature and the fact that it is difficult to distinguish from feral domestic cats. However, it is believed that there are fewer than 400 individuals remaining in the wild, with many of these suffering from genetic dilution due to hybridization with domestic cats.
Outlook for the Future
The Scottish wildcat is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and is protected by law in Scotland. The conservation breeding and release of wildcats is being carried out by the Saving Wildcats partnership led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) in collaboration with NatureScot, Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), The Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA), Norden’s Ark and Junta de Andalucía. The Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan aims to restore viable populations of the species north of the Highland Boundary Fault.
In June this year (2023) it was announced that about 20 specially bred wildcats were being released at secret locations in the Scottish Highlands.
However, the outlook for the species remains uncertain, and much will depend on the success of these conservation efforts and the willingness of policymakers and landowners to support them.
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