For a birdwatcher, travelling 640 miles to see a cat might sound a little odd. Given that domestic cats kill several million birds every year in Britain, I should be resolutely anti-feline. But I have to confess to liking them – even owning a particularly lazy individual that could only be accused of killing time.
There is much debate about the long-term threat cats pose to our songbird populations but it is their impact on the future survival of one of their own kind – the Scottish wildcat – that is increasingly becoming a cause for concern; and it is the slim chance of encountering this elusive animal that prompts me to journey so far from my Devon home.
Far from your average pampered pet, the native wildcat shuns human company, is able to survive in some of our harshest environments and was once widespread across Britain. It is now one of our rarest mammals, confined to the northern half of Scotland after persecution and habitat loss resulted in its extinction in England and Wales by the end of the 1800s. We can only guess at how many of this secretive species are left: a few thousand perhaps – some argue a few hundred.
Looking like a rugged version of a typical grey tabby, with thick fur and a banded tail, the Scottish wildcat has inhabited our islands since at least the last Ice Age. However, the introduction of domestic cats to Britain more than 2,000 years ago has resulted in interbreeding, diluting the wildcat gene pool and, as numbers have fallen, threatening to hybridise out of existence those that remain. There are growing calls for domestic cats to be neutered in areas where they come into close contact with their endangered relatives.
To distinguish a legally protected wildcat from a hybrid or feral tabby is far from straightforward, presenting an unusual predicament for conservationists keen to safeguard pure-bred individuals. Following the collapse of a court case in 1990 that hinged on the accurate identification of Scottish wildcats, scientists set to work to define key visual characteristics. The latest study, published this month by Scottish Natural Heritage, matches genetics with coat patterns to help clear up the confusion and provides evidence that, despite centuries of cross-coupling, the Scottish wildcat has managed to survive as a distinct species. It also examined wildcat distribution and suggests that populations appear to be holding their ground in core areas in the north, east and far west of the country, though their fate elsewhere remains unclear.
But knowing what they look like, and where they live, is one thing. Finding one is another matter. Their isolated territories are thinly spread across woodlands, rough grazing and moorland areas with good supplies of rabbit and rodent prey, and they leave little evidence of their whereabouts, are silent, solitary and most active at dawn and dusk.
In order to stand any chance of a sighting, I need expert help, and meet up with a leading ecologist, Adrian Davis of Naiad Consultancy and Wildoutdoors, who co-ordinated the Scottish wildcat distribution survey and knows a prime location in the Cairngorms where they have been spotted on several occasions. I also need plenty of luck, and it comes with a decent fall of snow the night before I arrive. In the morning light, the open fields resemble white pages scribbled with the stories of nocturnal comings and goings. Everything that has moved in the hours before has left its signature in the snow, and, as we follow a path along the side of a remote valley, a single set of prints brings us to a halt at the edge of a copse. Circular indentations with four front toes and a central pad are clearly visible deep in the hollows where the feet had found a firm footing. "Scottish wildcat," Davis nods with a smile.
The tracks take a determined route close to the field edges where tussocks of grass provide cover, and we follow them for half a mile to an isolated ruin. As Davis peers in through the open stone doorway, spotting the remains of a recently killed hare on the floor, I catch a fleeting glimpse outside: a large cat, dark against the snow, jumps from the rear window before disappearing.
This tantalising sighting will live long in the memory. Few species embody the spirit of the wilderness more than the Scottish wildcat. While it is good to know there are still untamed corners of Britain where this enigmatic predator roams, its future hangs in the balance, and out of sight should never mean out of mind while there is a chance to make a difference.
Charlie Elder is the author of 'While Flocks Last', (Corgi) which describes his search for Britain's most endangered birds