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Animal Fact File: Scottish Wildcat

Name: Scottish Wildcat

Scientific Name: Felis silvestris

Description: The Scottish wildcat is similar in appearance to a domestic cat, but has a heavier head, larger body and longer limbs. The tail is stocky and bushy with black rings, which help it stand out from hybrids.

Scottish wildcat crouching in grass

Species: The Scottish wildcat is descended from the African wildcat, Felis sylvestris lybica, around 10,000 years ago. It is a member of the cat family Felidae and subfamily Felinae, which also includes cheetahs, servals and lynx.  Like other cat species, wildcats have retractile claws and a powerful bite due to their teeth and facial muscles.

Colouring: A Scottish wildcat’s fur is solid-striped with tabby patterning, in a grey-brown colour. The bushy tail has black rings and a black tip. Wildcats do not have white markings or stripes on their cheeks or hind legs, or a dorsal line on the tail, like domestic tabbies. 

Length: 56cm

Tail: 29cm

Height: 35-40cm

Weight: 4-5 kg

Habitat: The Scottish wildcat lives in woodland habitats, forest edges and shrubland, and avoids heather moorland and gorse. Their current distribution in the UK is just a few locations in Scotland; the Cairngorms, Aberdeenshire, Angus Glens, Ardnamurchan and the Black Isle.

Diet: Being carnivorous, wildcats mainly feed on the European rabbit, field voles and wood mice.

Breeding: Male and female Scottish wildcats reach sexual maturity between 10 and 12 months old. Mating occurs between January and March, with litters born in May. Litters vary in size from one to eight and are born in a den. They begin to hunt at 10 to 12 weeks and are fully weaned at 14 weeks. 

Lifespan: 10-12 years

Scottish wildcat with kittens

Other Facts:

  • Today, the Scottish wildcat is the rarest and most endangered mammal in Britain. There are estimated to be only 100-300 cats which meet the genetic criteria of a Scottish wildcat.
  • The Scottish wildcat has been present in Britain for at least two million years and was once common throughout all of Great Britain.
  • Populations declined in the 19th and 20th century from persecution and loss of habitat.
  • One of the biggest threats to the wildcat is hybridisation with domestic cats, as well as the transmitting of disease from domestic cats.
  • They are nocturnal or crepuscular, only coming out from their dens to hunt at night, dawn or dusk, and are elusive and solitary, like many other cat species. This makes it difficult to spot them.
  • Wildcats have over 30,000 hairs per cm2, making their fur soft and dense, perfect for the colder Scottish climates.
  • People who have seen wildcats, feral cats or hybrids throughout Scotland are encouraged to report their sightings, so conservationists have a better knowledge of population and distribution.
  • A distinctive feature of a Scottish wildcat which differs from domestic cats is their ferocious behaviour when defending themselves or their young, even mock-charging at larger threats.
  • Like other wild cats, they will mark their territory, which can be up to 40 square miles, with scent markings such as spraying, face-rubbing and scats.
  • Scottish wildcats are not very vocal animals. Hissing and yowling are signs of aggression, and wailing is used to draw attention to males during mating. Kittens often play in silence.

You might be lucky to see a Scottish wildcat in the wild in Scotland, but remember to leave their habitat undisturbed and make a note of the location. They are also found in captivity. When outdoors looking for wildlife, make sure you have comfy boots and ladies or men’s country clothing. Have a browse through our outdoor clothing to find something right for you!

In the meantime, be sure to take a look at some of our previous animal fact files, from the pine marten to the red squirrel, other rare species in Britain.

Imagre credit: Peter Trimming