In celebration of World Cat Day on 8th August, today’s Story from the Museum Floor by Bryony from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum takes a close look at a wild cat that is closer to home than you might think …
And for more about animals and nature, have a look at the Curator’s blog, Nature Manchester.
The Highland Tiger and the Pet Cat
For most people, if they were asked to think of ‘wild cats’ they might imagine lions, leopards or tigers … but we have our very own, very wild cat living right here in the untamed places of the UK. You will probably know it as the Scottish wildcat, or perhaps by another name – the Highland Tiger.
Now, there are actually wildcats across much of Europe, Africa and Asia, but they are divided into different subspecies – that is, they are all grouped within the same overall species but each subspecies has slightly different adaptations to the different environments in their range. This means that they could easily interbreed to produce fertile offspring, but due to their different ranges, they usually stay separate.
Some of the subspecies of wildcat: the African wildcat, with its long legs and mostly pale spotted fur; the Asiatic wildcat, with its distinctive spotted coat and tail bands; the European wildcat, with its thicker fur and prominently blunt banded tail; and finally, the Scottish wildcat. (Images from: gateway-africa.com, mindenpictures.com, arkive.org, and earthtouchnews.com)
The Scottish wildcat, though similar-looking to the European mainland subspecies, is generally larger, darker and more prominently striped than the European wildcat. It has also been cut off from the mainland for about 9000 years, allowing for its development into a distinct subspecies, known scientifically as Felis sylvestris grampia. You can see from the pictures above that there are noticeable physical differences between the subspecies, but there is one particular feature that they all share – the large, blunt, distinctly ringed tail.
Out of Africa
Our domestic cats are not descended from Scottish wildcats at all – our pets are actually descended from the African wildcat, as anyone with knowledge of Ancient Egypt could probably tell you, and recent DNA testing has confirmed it. In fact, Scottish wildcats are impossible to tame – they do not enjoy companionship, they are territorial, and will be quite aggressive and wild even as kittens.
Yes, really – look but don’t touch. Also, notice that distinctive large blunt banded tail, which you can see even in the kittens. (Image from: bbc.co.uk). Also, a carved ancient Egyptian tusk showing several animals, including a cat, from the Ramesseum (a temple dedicated to Ramesses II) in the Ancient Worlds gallery, Manchester Museum.
One of the problems is that even though they are completely different subspecies with completely different behaviours, the geographical separation aspect of speciation no longer applies to cats – they’ve spread to almost everywhere on earth with us humans.
Here in the UK we have about 7.4 million pet cats, with an additional estimated population of 1 million feral cats – that means there’s about one cat for every 8 people. Feral cats are not adapted for the same environment as the Scottish wildcat, and often struggle to survive in the weather conditions encountered in the wild parts of Scotland, particularly in winter. Their behaviour is very different too – by necessity, the Scottish wildcat has evolved to keep their own territories of up to 40km² each in order to ensure they have enough prey to survive, whereas feral cats tend to gather in loose social groups, and thus may rely on people feeding them or on raiding farms for livestock.
Threats to the Scottish Wildcat
Responsible cat ownership – when cats are neutered, vaccinated and kept well – are not a major problem to the wildcat. However, when domestic cats are not neutered, there is a risk of cross-breeding with the Scottish wildcat and spreading disease, this means that the population is now shockingly low.
A hybrid of a Scottish wildcat and a domestic cat – notice how the tail bands run into each other, and how many of the markings and delicate face shape are more typically domestic cat, but you can still see wildcat ancestry. (Image from: scottishwildcats.co.uk)
And there are other threats to the Scottish wildcat. They are still seen as a pest in certain areas, and although they have had official protection from the Wildlife and Countryside Act since 1981, they are still sometimes mistaken for feral cats and killed, caught in traps intended for other predators such as foxes, or illegally trapped and poisoned directly by gamekeepers.
Wildcats were once found throughout Britain, but were gone from Wales and England by 1850, and declined further through the 19th and early 20th centuries. Historically, there has been a widespread campaign against them, as with all of the UK’s predators – this same campaign drove animals like the wolf and lynx to extinction here.
It was believed that it wasn’t just livestock they threatened – they were thought to be fierce enough to eat people, too.
A painting from around 1800, showing a Scottish wildcat being hunted by a pack of dogs. (Image from: scottishwildcats.co.uk)
Scottish wildcats were always quite a rare treat to see in their natural habitat, but their situation is getting much worse year by year. The most recent estimate of their population size today that was accepted by the IUCN Red List, was in 2004, when it was estimated that there were only 400 Scottish wildcats living in the wild, which in itself would make the population Critically Endangered. However, a recent population estimate from Scottish Wildcat Action found a pure wildcat population of just 35.
Hard to find!
Many people live their whole lives in areas populated by wildcats without ever seeing one, but luckily the ones we have in the museum don’t mind being found!
Scottish wildcat taxidermy specimens, Living Worlds gallery, Manchester Museum.
The more we love our wild creatures, the more political will there will be to take action to save them. There are already neutering schemes for feral cats and subsidised neutering and vaccination schemes for domestic cats, as well as nature reserves and organisations set up to make sure that one of our native creatures, the last type of wild cat in Britain, does not go the way of so many of the other creatures of our past – the wolf, the lynx, the great auk – and that we let the land be an uncultivated sanctuary for a creature that was here before us, to whom the land rightfully belongs.
Love your cats this National Cat Day, and don’t forget that this includes all cats – including those both unseen and untamed, still out there in the wilds of Britain.
For more about animals and nature, have a look at the Curator’s blog, Nature Manchester.
P.S. Want to find out more?