Holes in the map, part 6: Wildcat

In part 6 of our series about the Lake District’s missing wildlife, Site Manager Lee Schofield writes about the wildcat, a species that was common in our woods and fells until surprisingly recently.

Somewhere between the muddy wild boars and the grumpy looking eagle owls at the Lake District Wildlife Park sits a wood and wire enclosure with a tangle of pine branches inside. If you look long enough, you might pick out a movement, or a glimpse of something beautiful camouflaged in the shade of the foliage. At a glance, these black and brown striped creatures look like sturdy domestic cats, but if they come closer as they did when I visited, fixing me with a malevolent stare, you’ll realise that these are no ordinary moggies. Taller, sturdier, flatter of face and thicker of tail, these magnificent beasts are Scottish wildcats, Britain’s rarest mammal.

Despite their superficial resemblance to a household puss, Scottish wildcats are not the sort of creature that you’re likely to enjoy having curled up on your lap. Experts that have worked with them claim that they are untameable, something that can’t be said even for lions, tigers or leopards. When wildcats were more widely known, they had the reputation for being so fierce and deadly that they earned the nickname of ‘British Tiger’. As they stared at me from their enclosure at the Wildlife Park, I could sense that ferocity. Their gaze was unflinching, murderous and sent a shudder down my spine.  Although they are certainly larger than domestic cats, it’s likely that their savage reputation led to exaggeration of their size, and historical accounts are full of reports of wildcats reaching 5ft from nose to tail.

Scottish wildcats aren’t very well named. Although today they are only found in remote parts of Scotland, until as recently as 150 years ago, they were far more widespread. Historically they were distributed across the whole of England, Scotland and Wales, but thanks to our forebear’s dislike of them, they’ve been suffering at our hands for centuries.

Cumbria was one of the wildcat’s last English strongholds and there are more wildcat records from here than for any other county. Like many other of the ‘shadow species’ I’ve written about, they’ve left their mark all over the landscape, particularly in the remote, craggy places, where they would have reared their kittens in rocky dens. Cat Bells above Derwent Water, Catstye Cam above Patterdale, Cat Gill in Borrowdale, Cat Bields in Wasdale, Cat Bank in Coniston – all hark back to a time when wildcats prowled the Lake District. Not only were they widespread, they were clearly also numerous; in Whitsun week of 1759, 12 were killed in the vicinity of Ullswater alone.

The sad story of the English wildcat is one shared by many other creatures with teeth and claws. Like both golden and white-tailed eagles, pine martens, polecats, hen harriers, red kites, foxes and a host of other predatory species, wildcats were classed as vermin because of their occasional liking for domestic fowl and game birds. They’ve probably been killed by humans for as long as we’ve been farming, but the pressure on them intensified in the Victorian period, which is when the last English wildcats met their grisly end.  

It’s hard to say precisely when wildcats disappeared from England, in part because of their promiscuity. Although different in many ways, wildcats and domestic cats are sufficiently closely related to be able to breed with each other. As wildcat numbers dwindled, they came into contact with their own kind less and less frequently. The urge to breed is as strong in wildcats as in any creature, and so in the absence of their own kind, they started to breed with the ever-increasing numbers of domestic cats, creating hybrids that were no longer the wild hunters of the forest. Alongside habitat loss, this hybridisation is the main threat to the continued survival of our wildcats and it’s now thought that there might be less than a hundred truly pure wildcats left in Scotland. Conservationists have been aware of the problem for decades, but until recently, nobody quite seemed to know what to do about it.

There are, however, some bold suggestions being made. Derek Gow, Devonshire farmer and renegade reintroduction specialist, believes that the key to bringing wildcats back to the wide-ranging status they once enjoyed in the UK is to breed them in captivity and to release them – lots of them. Their preferred habitat is not in short supply – elsewhere in Europe, wildcats have a liking for gently farmed landscapes with thick hedges, woodlands and plenty of connectivity, rather like much of lowland England. It seems that our wildcats are only found in the less populated corners of Scotland because that’s where there was less persecution pressure, not because it’s necessarily where they like to be. Successful European wildcat reintroduction projects have shown that by releasing them in sufficiently large numbers, the risk of them hybridising with domestic cats is low. It turns out that wildcats are more likely to kill a feral cat than mate with one if there are enough of their own kind in the vicinity.

There might be some nervousness about wildcats returning to their former stomping grounds. They can kill free-range poultry, but due to their predominantly nocturnal habitats, any chickens put in for the night are unlikely to be at much risk. They don’t kill lambs or other livestock and, in Scotland, the National Farmers Union are supportive of wildcat conservation. Unlike domestic cats which catch 27 million birds annually, wildcats prefer rabbits and small mammals, with birds only making up a small part of their diet. By killing rats, mice and rabbits, wildcats might be a benefit to farmers. They can be effective predators of grey squirrels too so, like the pine marten, their return could help to give our beleaguered reds a boost.

Derek Gow’s wildcat breeding plans are well underway. He now has several wildcat pairs in enclosures on his farm in Devon, and there are others elsewhere around the country. The focus now is on building up a robust, healthy captive breeding population, capable of producing hundreds of kittens a year. Because wildcats are a native species, releasing them into the wild doesn’t require the level of government permission that reintroducing a missing species, like the beaver does. This is species reinforcement, not reintroduction. Derek hopes that there will be sufficient numbers ready for release in a couple of years’ time.

Cumbria isn’t likely to be where wildcats are returned to first. The South-West of England, and North and West Wales are most likely sites for initial releases. But ours was a landscape that clearly appealed to wildcats until not long ago, and if they re-establish further south, they are more than capable of expanding back into other parts of their historic range.

I love the idea that one day Catstye Cam, ‘the ridge with a path frequented by wild cats’, might feel the tread of their soft pads again. How much more exciting a place Cumbria would be with the British Tiger prowling our hills. 

Read the entirely collection of our Holes in the Map series in our blog. Find out more about RSPB Scotland’s involvement in the Scottish Wildcat Action partnership here.