Cats and wildlife: The hunter of suburbia

Ground-breaking new research is following domestic cats to find out what impact these predators are having on our wildlife. James Fair investigates.

Domestic cats: the hunter of suburbia article spread


Rat versus robin

There’s no doubt, too, that domestic cats highlight the UK’s contradictory attitudes to wildlife. If a cat comes back with a mouse, many people will think that’s okay, but if it’s a bird, they will feel that their trusted pet has broken an unwritten rule.
Rebecca agrees: “People love birds, but are more uncomfortable with little furry creatures. They don’t like the idea of robins being eaten by cats, but they’re not so worried about rats, and this taints their view of mice and voles.”
The whole cat predation issue is highly charged, Mike observes. “If you just look at the ecology, however, then you’re talking about a predator that is living in very high densities and not limited by food supply. If that were true of any other species, there would be an outcry.”
When I started researching this article, I assumed that the problem of cat predation of wildlife was a preoccupation that could be traced back, at most, about 30 years.
The earliest peer-reviewed study I can find dates from 1978, while a widely cited paper from 1987 looked at the killing habits of 70 cats in a Bedfordshire village. They were major predators of house sparrows, it concluded.
A perennial problem
Then I remembered something from my childhood, a poem by Edward Thomas, who died at the Battle of Arras in 1917. The poem’s three short stanzas describe the life of an unloved stray that took its toll on blackbirds, thrushes and nightingales.
Thomas concludes:
“I loathed and hated her for this;
One speckle on a thrush’s breast
Was worth a million such; and yet
She lived long, till God gave her rest.”
Apart from the fact that cats are unlikely to take many nightingales these days, it seems that not much has changed in the best part of 100 years.

Here are a few feline facts to put the Reading research into context.

  • The most recent estimate for the number of cats in the UK is 10.3 million. Just over a quarter of households have at least one cat, and cat ownership is higher among people educated to degree level.
  • The research carried out by Rebecca Thomas in Reading involved 250 cats from 210 households for four six-week periods in both 2008 and 2009. The most commonly caught prey items are listed below. Woodmice accounted for 43 per cent of all animals returned to their owners.
The top 10 cat ‘kills’
  1. Woodmouse
  2. Brown rat
  3. Robin
  4. Blackbird
  5. Bank vole
  6. Common shrew
  7. Woodpigeon
  8. Blue tit
  9. Great tit
  10. Dunnock

Clyde was one of 20 cats that Rebecca followed using GPS tracking devices. (Red dots mark Clyde's range.)

  • Home patch 
    As expected, Clyde spends most of his time in his owner’s and neighbours’ gardens.
  • Furthest point 
    Clyde is happy to travel quite long distances.
  • Crossing roads
    That Clyde is prepared to cross busy main roads may not come as welcome news to his loving owners.
  • Hunting territory
    This green triangle is an area of rough grassland that Rebecca thinks Clyde may be using for hunting.


Did you know?
Cats’ skill as pest controllers has long been exploited – the champion British ‘mouser’ was a male tabby in a Lancashire factory, which killed more than 22,000 mice in 23 years.
Tell us what you think 
Is your moggy harmless or a killer? Are cats a menace to your local wildlife? And what is the most unusual prey item your pet has brought home?
To share your experiences with other readers, you can email us or leave your comments on the forum


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