They were once widespread throughout the forests of the United Kingdom, fierce, feline creatures rumoured by some to be man-eating predators and revered by others as quasi-mythical beings harbouring the malevolent spirits of witches. But decades of relentless hunting took their toll on the population of the wildcat, so that by the mid-19th century they were declared extinct in England and Wales.
Now, conservationists are launching the first population survey in more than 20 years to discover whether the dwindling numbers of Scottish wildcats are suffering a similar fate.
Walkers will be asked to keep an eye out for the beasts after scientists said they feared they were nearing extinction in the one part of the UK where gamekeepers had originally failed to eradicate them.
Calling for members of the public to report sightings of wildcats in forests and other remote areas, Scottish National Heritage hopes the population survey will help to fix the numbers. It estimates that fewer than 400 of the animals exist in the country.
The survey will aim to establish the size and distribution of Felis silvestris grampia, the Scottish wildcat, and to draw conclusions about the plight of Britain's last large mammal predator.
And it could lead to measures including voluntary neutering of domestic cats to prevent them from interbreeding with wildcats in areas where the species is most at risk.
Ro Scott, policy and advisory officer at Scottish National Heritage, said the public would be asked to pay attention to markings on cats seen in the wild and to report these to its officers, along with the location of sightings and video footage or photographs.
She said: "We want to involve as many members of the public as possible who are out and about in areas where they might come across wildcats. We will be asking them to fill in a short questionnaire asking what they have seen."
The typical British wildcat is similar in appearance to a domestic cat. However, wildcats are larger with a wider face and jaw and have well-defined brown and black stripes and a bushy tail.
The twin perils of persecution and disease led to a dramatic reduction in the numbers of wildcats and, by the 1860s, the species was declared extinct in England and Wales.
Numbers also fell in Scotland but sightings in the north of the country, particularly in the Highlands, ensured that they were never said to be extinct. The species is listed as vulnerable.Reuse content