Thursday, January 3, 2008

When is a wild cat really a wildcat?

Wildcat When is a wild cat really a wildcat?
While taking care of two abandoned wildcats until they were old enough to take care of themselves, Grace Laidlaw got the chance to experience first hand everything that distinguishes a wild feline from its domesticated relatives.

My Mckittens
I am sitting under an oak tree with a wildcat at my feet. Birds protest loudly at her presence, as she rubs her cheek against mine, her wet teeth brushing my skin. Soon she will leave, turning once or twice to call to me, and weeks may pass before I see her again.

Their mother had been frightened off by a keeper out lamping for foxes on a grouse estate in the east of Scotland. He had discovered the two kittens, wet and angry, in a hole nearby. They had been born late in the season and were too young to fend for themselves, so he decided to find them a home on the west coast, where they could eventually be released into a wilder but safer place.

But, were they just feral orphans with particularly bad tempers? They certainly looked like wildcats, their soft coats patterned with striking stripes and spots in varying shades of grey and black. They used their short, hooped tails like big cats use theirs - standing straight up when pleased or excited, and tucked low on the ground when displeased or frightened. An encounter with one of my domestic cats produced the typical wildcat spit - ears flattened and mouths as red as their anger. Some claimed that my kittens couldn't be true wildcats if I could pick them up or stroke them. But, I had scars to prove just how wild they could be.

Training for freedom
The following summer, they began a training-for-freedom programme. Before leaving, they rewarded me with their company for a further six weeks, when I could watch them enjoy their freedom, racing up and down trees, hunting, or sleeping in the sun on the bough of a tree. They were so different from my domestic feline friends. They had a lion-like swagger, and their cries were unlike any I had heard before. They had no taste for cooked food, grew beautiful silver coats for the winter and shed them in the spring, and panted like dogs after running in the sun.

My wildcats now live independent lives in the dark pinewoods, and sometimes I hear their strange cries on a still night. It wasn't easy rearing these two little tigers, and even harder to let them go. I've shed blood and tears over them. But, in the end, they gave me far more than I ever gave them.

True wildcats?
Two thousand years of potential interbreeding with domestic cats, and persecution for its fur and as vermin, has taken a considerable toll on the Scottish wildcat, and doubt now surrounds whether true wildcats still exist at all in Britain. But recent research suggests that wildcats do prowl the Highlands and points a way forward for conserving Britain's only native feline.

A 1990 prosecution for the illegal killing of three wildcats failed because the expert witness could not identify them beyond reasonable doubt as wildcats. This confusion over the distinctions between wildcats, feral domestic cats and their hybrids prompted Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to make detailed measurements of wild-living cats either trapped alive or killed by game keepers and cars. The specimens fell into two groups. Group one had longer leg bones and shorter guts than group two and was associated with cold and dry regions of the eastern Highlands, making it a contender for the 'wildcat' label. But coat markings were highly variable in both groups, suggesting that visual identification is untrustworthy, and legal protection, therefore, problematic. "What is clear is that there is a group of wild-living cats in Scotland which have different characteristics to other cats," says SNH advisory officer for mammals, Mairi Cooper. "Whether these cats are true wildcats is something we are currently addressing."

Andrew Kitchener of the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh is more confident: "Yes, I think there is a wildcat out there, but there's an awful lot of hybrids too." In contrast to the SNH study, Kitchener found that certain features of the wildcat markings are closely correlated with other wildcat characteristics. But he doesn't believe there is any serious disagreement between the two studies, and he is now investigating whether the two groups of SNH cats can be separated by the coat characteristics he used. Researchers now await the results of a genetic study, which they hope will shed more light on the situation.

To prevent further hybridisation, Kitchener recommends that all domestic cats in the putative wildcat's range, are neutered (and inoculated against disease). He also advocates removing the incentive for gamekeepers to kill wildcats by finding ways to keep them away from gamebird-rearing pens. Protection of key habitats, alternatives to indiscriminate lamping and snaring of feral cats and an education program, Kitchener maintains, should also improve the survival prospects of this symbol of Scottish wilderness.

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