Five hundred years ago, deep in the forests of southern England: a roe deer and her infant fawn stand peacefully at the edge of a glade. Suddenly, a dark animal with striped fur crashes out of the undergrowth and pulls the fawn down, seizing it by the neck. Suffocating its victim within seconds, it then drags the carcass back into cover and starts to feed.
Such dramatic ambushes were once a regular occurrence in the British countryside. The attacker was a European Wildcat, Felis silvestris, at that time not far behind in the food chain to the wolf, then the top predator in our island ecosystem. With dense woodland cloaking much of the landscape, there were plenty of places for these animals to go about their business unmolested.
Today the situation is vastly different. We now live in one of the least wooded countries in Europe and there are few places where large predators can hide. The wolf is long gone and surveys have now revealed that the wildcat is facing the immediate prospect of extinction. Estimates have varied on exactly how many remain in their last British refuge, the Scottish Highlands, but until recently a total population figure of 400 or so was generally accepted.
Then, in August, a project organised by Scottish Natural Heritage concluded that there were only 150 breeding pairs of the so-called ‘Highland Tiger’ remaining. The latest figures, released by the Scottish Wildcat Association last month, paint an even more alarming picture. A review of eyewitness reports, 2,000 camera-trap sightings and roadkill corpses indicates that as few as 35 individuals may survive, making the Scottish wildcat one of the most endangered creatures on the planet.
English place-names such as Catcliffe, Catfield, Catford and Catworth are testament to the former presence of wildcats in other parts of Britain. Yet whilst they may be one of the original ancestors of the domestic tabby, wildcats make our home-loving pets look like wimps. Up to 50 per cent bigger and with thicker fur, they are stronger and more aggressive than even the most seasoned moggy. Adult males can weigh as much as a medium-sized dog and, kilo for kilo, are as powerful as a leopard. More to the point, they are truly wild – even when reared by humans from birth, they prove completely untameable, scratching and spitting whenever approached.
You might think that the sight of a wildcat would strike terror into the heart of Tiddles the fireside kitty. Not at all. Instead, romance has flourished and therein lies the problem: interbreeding. Amorous feral moggies have been fraternising with their hunky relatives to the point where the number of genetically pure wildcats has dwindled to below the point of viability. For every genuine wildcat record, whether a sighting or a road-kill victim, there are at least eight involving hybrid animals. If this pattern continues, authentic wildcats may disappear completely within a few years, if not months.
Although the top wildcat prey is rabbit, they also hunt rodents, hares, young deer and birds up to the size of a capercaillie, which stands three feet tall. People have always been scared of wildcats and countryside folklore is packed with lurid tales of their ferocity, which was known to extend as far as attacks on humans. In the 1620s a woman in Northumberland claimed that her child had been taken by “a monstrous wildcatte” from its basket outside the front door of her cottage. Rumours of man-killing wildcats continued well into the 19th century, and to this day many Scottish clans feature the wildcat in their heraldry as an emblem of their own bravery and fearlessness.
Meanwhile, wildcats were under assault and were shot, trapped and poisoned. A bounty of up to three shillings was paid for every tail produced as evidence of a kill, with bounty hunters often caught trying to pass off tails from farmyard cats as the real thing. Wildcats had disappeared from England by the 1840s and the last Welsh specimen was trapped in Montgomeryshire in 1862, a witness reporting how “it fought desperately until it was killed.”
Only in Scotland did British wildcats survive into the 20th century, hunting by night in remote wooded areas and hiding during the day in dens among boulders or tree roots. By now scientists had recognized that the British population, isolated from mainland Europe for over 9,000 years by the English Channel, was actually a distinct subspecies, Felis silvestris grampia, and considerably bigger and fiercer than its Continental cousins.
Perhaps sensing that their days are numbered, the last wildcats are not going down without a fight. The notorious “The Beast of Buchan”, which had been butchering large numbers of poultry and was presumed to be a fox, turned out to be a particularly ferocious wildcat. Its capture came a few months after an unrelated incident reported by the owner of an Alsatian dog. Hearing her pet whining from the end of the garden, she went to investigate and found that it had been attacked by a massive wildcat, which was clamped to its face. She managed to beat the cat off with a stick, but the dog was badly wounded. Such incidents come as no surprise to zookeepers, who always enter wildcat enclosures with care, as their snarling charges have been known to rush forward and attack.
It now looks as though the genetically pure Scottish wildcat can only be saved via a captive breeding programme, from which animals could be released into the wild in future. But this would be pointless unless the large population of feral moggies was exterminated in advance. A cull is being increasingly discussed as a way of reducing the toll taken by feral cats on wildlife and it is no secret that gamekeepers already actively control cat numbers to try and protect young pheasants and partridges.
Moves towards controlling cats and their impact is not restricted to rural areas. The number of domestic cats in Britain is thought to have doubled in the last three decades and today there are an estimated ten million of them, with many living in our towns and cities. The Mammal Society estimates that this army of potential predators account for the deaths of 275 million wild creatures every year, mainly birds, rodents and amphibians. Yet according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, “there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens is having any impact on bird populations UK-wide.”
This may well be true nationally, but I refuse to believe they are not having a serious impact on a local level. Swathes of suburbia are virtually devoid of largely ground-feeding birds such as thrushes and dunnocks, an absence that cannot be unrelated to the generally high density of cats in such situations. The carnage in spring, with guileless young chicks just out of the nest, can be distressing to witness. I recall seeing an entire brood of young robins snatched and mangled by a posse of cats, one by one over a period of three days, until all were dead. Responsible cat-owners equip their charges with collar bells, estimated to reduce the ‘catch rate’ by up to a third, but the less aware do nothing, or perhaps don’t care.
Perhaps we need to reappraise our laissez-faire attitude to domestic cats and be more proactive in trying to contain the burgeoning feral population. Otherwise our gardens will continue to have fewer birds in them than they should, and the Highland Tiger will soon lose the last of its nine lives.