SCIENCE / The wild beast is a real pussycat: The wildcat's ugly temperament has been exaggerated. Now geneticists aren't even sure it is distinct from the domestic cat, says Angela Wilkes

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WHAT'S your idea of a Scottish wildcat? A spitting, striped beastie with a huge bushy tail, vicious claws and personality to match? Then perhaps you have been led astray by bygone Highland artists and nature photographers keen to snap wildcats in their most dramatic pose.

Mike Daniels, Scottish National Heritage's wildcat project officer, spends many an icy morning inspecting the contents of his live-traps as part of the first genetic survey of cats living in the wild in Scotland. When he peers into the cage to see what has taken the rabbit-gut bait overnight, he is often surprised. 'On many occasions,' he says, 'the cat sitting there purring will have all the markings of a traditional wildcat, while the animal that goes completely berserk when I approach is a domestic ginger tom.'

Even The Observer Book of Wild Animals fosters a somewhat cliched image of the animal. Its photograph shows a feline with flattened ears, arched back and threatening open mouth. Its text echoes the description of an 18th-century naturalist, Thomas Pennant, in calling the Scottish wildcat 'the fiercest and most destructive beast we have'.

David Balharry, a zoologist who is supervising the two-year Scottish National Heritage (SNH) study, explains the story behind this spitfire image: 'Old sporting books are full of tales of vicious cats on misty mornings. But, often, the pictured cat was being provoked - perhaps holding its 'dramatic' posture because one leg was caught in a gin trap just out of shot. Or it had been disturbed in an old fox's den by men with terriers. While the dogs were killing the kittens, the mother cat would be held at bay long enough to sketch or photograph it.'

The Scottish wildcat's size, Balharry says, is often over-estimated. 'We're told by farmers or keepers that a cat they've glimpsed fleetingly must weigh at least 22lbs. But when trapped, briefly anaesthetised and weighed, it turns out to be only

10-12lbs. I think this must be an illusion created by its striped markings.'

The cat's size and temperament have certainly been misjudged, but there may be a greater misconception - one that is giving conservationists a headache. Contrary to historical belief, the wildcat (Felis sylvestris) may not be sufficiently different genetically from the domestic cat (Felis catus) to qualify as a separate species. Moreover, it has been cross-breeding with domestic cats in remote areas, probably for many more centuries than was thought.

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, the wildcat enjoys fully protected status as a species in its own right. But what are the implications if that species (or sub-species) is less than 50 per cent pure - as it is, allegedly, in other parts of Europe? Should hybrids be protected? How do you tell them apart? The answer, according to Balharry and Daniels, is that you can't.

It used to be thought that true wildcats had only tiny smudges of creamy white in their coats: at groin, stomach and throat. They never had white paws. Their dark tail rings were invariably unbroken. Highland keepers hired by the lucrative game- bird rearing industry to shoot potential predators say wildcats are easy to spot. They claim they can tell the difference between pet tabby, feral (domestic cat gone wild), hybrid and wildcat even by searchlight beam at 3am. Specialists argue, however, that they are impossible to differentiate. Visual criteria will no longer suffice.

'Even as a Highlander myself,' says Balharry, 'and the son of a naturalist who grew up with animals, I started off by thinking this cat must conform to certain external characteristics. But the more I see - over 400 so far - the more I realise no two are the same. There is an enormous variance of markings and size.'

Even the Natural History Museum's type specimen may not be representative. It is a medium-sized striped cat with virtually no white on it, shot at the turn of the century. But there may be a good reason why this one has been preserved. David Balharry has discovered that locals trapping wildcats were paid a bounty for skins that conformed to particular markings. 'They chucked away any with white on them,' he says.

Until the controversy over what exactly constitutes a wildcat is resolved by DNA analysis, Balharry and his colleagues are taking nothing for granted. They even call the animal, cautiously, 'the cat that lives wild in Scotland'. Its closest relatives live in varying degrees of wildness

in Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Balk-

ans, France, Germany and some

Mediterranean islands - and

zoologists from many of these countries are cooperating with SNH's research. They will genetically test their own wildcat populations as soon as a prototype (a sample essence of pure wildcat) is developed.

Broadly, Felis sylvestris is related to all other cats, even the big ones that roar. There are three main subdivisions, each one a different group or genus. Both wild and domestic cats are in the Felis genus. When it comes to further sub-divisions, zoologists disagree on the number of cat species, though most recognise 38. Animals are assigned separate species status if they do not normally interbreed, and produce infertile offspring if they do. But even where, say, an African or Scottish wildcat mates successfully with a feral domestic cat, parent cats currently keep their separate species status.

Domestication was recorded in ancient Egypt 4,500 years ago, but there is some controversy over whether the tabby-like African wildcat (Felis libyca) or the allegedly more gentle jungle cat, Felis chaus, was the starting point. Certainly, the preponderance of libyca skulls in Egyptian cat cemeteries makes them more likely ancestors. Cats may have domesticated themselves, drawn to vermin-rich 'food clusters' around human settlements. Or their tame, modern traits could be the result of deliberate human intervention.

Either way, Balharry points out, 'there is little evidence that domestication ever created a species'. Most modern taxonomists agree. So it is probable that the wildcat ranges - as one species - from north Scotland to south Africa, with variations in fur colour, texture and markings. It became isolated here after the Ice Age, when sea levels rose and cut Britain off from the rest of Europe.

In early medieval times, the wildcat's range probably covered most of Britain, though it was persecuted as vermin and trapped for its fur - one of the few allowed to common folk. But its persecution then seems trivial compared with what happened after the development of the percussion- cap cartridge in 1810. Over an 80- year-period, as big shooting estates grew, the wildcat's distribution retracted from an area that once stretched down to Hull and included the whole of Wales, up into the rocky outcrops of western Scotland.

Nowadays, wildcats are padding south and east again - as the corpses retrieved by Mike Daniels along the A9 north of Perth confirm. But, today, hybridisation is felt to be more of a threat than car or bullet.

Previous attempts to differentiate between wild and domestic cats have concentrated on coat markings (far more diverse in the latter), gut length (which can vary during an animal's lifetime) and skull size (thought to be bigger in both wildcats and hybrids). But David Balharry says behavioural differences provide clearer clues. 'Radio tracking shows wildcats tend to lead solitary lives, whereas domestics are sociable; you find large concentrations of ferals, for instance, around farms and hospitals.'

For a further year, wildcats will continue to be monitored. After the animals have been trapped and anaesthetised, blood samples are taken. While they are 'out' they are also photographed (to catalogue coat patterns), weighed and measured. Then the wildcats are fitted with microchip tags to prevent them from being re-recorded.

Blood is sent for DNA analysis to Robert Wayne, head of conservation genetics at the Institute of Zoology, London. Samples are also screened at Glasgow University for five feline viruses, including feline leukaemia and FIV, the so-called 'cat Aids'. Research may establish whether cat flu is as potent a killer of wildcats as it is of domestic animals.

Other tissue samples are being taken from cat corpses; Balharry's outhouse freezer is filled with them (chiefly road casualties). Frosted, plastic-wrapped and stiff as boards, they look like giant frozen mackerel. Skin and hair for DNA analysis is also being taken from 180 museum specimens up to 200 years old, as well as from prehistoric specimens up to 6,000 years old.

Extracting DNA from old, degraded specimens will require the most sensitive biochemical techniques available. To develop the vital prototype against which all subsequent animals can be assessed, researchers will have to resort to desperate measures.

'A section of bone weighing about six grams must be ground down to powder,' David Balharry explains. 'It could mean sacrificing one of our examples of prehistoric bone - there are only about 15 sets - and there is no guarantee that it will work. The trouble is, we can't afford to hold off until new techniques are perfected. Today's species - and my gut feeling is that there is still something out there that is different - needs protecting now.' -