Deep in the Cairngorms, high-tech gadgets are providing new insights into the life of one of Britain’s most secretive animals. Kenny Taylor goes on the trail of the Furry Pimpernel.
Sometimes you just know that you’re being watched. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not paranoid. But I admit that I love exploring a wild creature’s home territory, with no guarantee of a sighting, yet still sensing something of its presence. Though you may spot some signs, the animal itself is elusive.
That’s how it is with the Scottish wildcat. Some call it the Highland tiger, after its reputation for fierceness and status as an icon of Scottish wilds, but I think of it as the Furry Pimpernel. Seek it here, seek it there, seek it everywhere… but be warned: this felid is a Class A undercover operator.
Expect the unexpected
I should know. Some years ago, when a few rabbits lived in a bushy field corner beside my home on the Black Isle, north of Inverness, a wildcat would come to call. But it visited so infrequently that no amount of staring at the warren could conjure its presence. When the cat finally appeared, it was always a surprise and always fleeting.
My most memorable wildcat encounter occurred a few kilometres away, where a wooded undercliff meets a quiet shore. Few people walk here; fewer still explore the tangle of trees beside the rocky coast.
But now and then, in coves where pockets of sand are exposed at low tide, you can find small pawmarks on the beach. Four toes arched over a four-lobed pad, with no sign of clawmarks. Definitely cat prints.
One sunny morning in late autumn, my family and I climbed to the clifftop, where a sheep pasture, fringed by bracken, skirts a pinewood. As we approached, I saw the shape of an animal sitting at the field edge, its back towards us. Its fur was smoky grey-brown with darker stripes, and soft-looking.
Our son, still a baby and perched in a carrier on my back, made a small noise. The creature turned to look. It was a wildcat.
For a few moments, it stared at us. Its eyes were like amber moons, its gaze hypnotic. Then it vanished into the shadows. For the rest of that morning, the image of those eyes flared in my mind, giving an altered brightness to the scene. Even now, the thought of them has a strange intensity.
Years after that encounter, I returned to the same area with BBC Wildlife
regulars Mark Carwardine and Brett Westwood, who were making a series for BBC Radio 4
about hard-to-see British animals. Not surprisingly, the wildcat was near the top of their list.
As expected, we drew a blank, but found that exploring wildcat country gave us plenty to discuss in the broadcast. Once again, it felt good just knowing that a wildcat might, possibly, be around.
Given that this experience is typical, how on Earth do you find out how many Scottish wildcats still survive?
With difficulty, is the simple answer. Some estimates suggest that the Scottish population of pure-bred wildcats could be as low as 400 individuals but as yet nobody can be sure. The situation is complicated by hybridisation with domestic cats, which can make it difficult to clinch a firm identification in the field.
Clinging on in Scotland
A national overview published by Scottish Natural Heritage
this summer suggests that there has been no expansion in the wildcat’s range in Scotland since the first major survey more than 20 years ago.
Wildcats are still restricted to the Highlands and eastern Scotland, slightly north of a line between Glasgow and Edinburgh. They seem to be more widespread in the east than in the west of the country, with strongholds (if that isn’t too upbeat a word for such a scarce mammal) in the Cairngorms, Black Isle, Aberdeenshire and Ardnamurchan.
It’s a far cry from centuries past, when wildcats roamed much of Britain. Names such as Cat Bells in Cumbria (from ‘den of the wild cat’ in Old and Middle English) retain echoes of those long-vanished animals.
Centuries of woodland clearance and, in the past 200 years, persecution pushed Britain’s only surviving native forest cat to its current, precarious position.
A bad situation is made worse by the hybridisation issue. Interbreeding could change the very nature of the beast, risking the loss of aspects of Scottish wildcat biology and behaviour that help this geographically isolated population to survive. Contact with feral cats could also leave their wild cousins vulnerable to potentially deadly viruses.
United we stand
Yet there is room for optimism. A band of dedicated people – including gamekeepers, who were once seen as the archenemies of free-living predators – is taking great strides to establish the numbers, range and habits of the Scottish wildcat, and boost its population.
“We couldn’t achieve much without the involvement of local gamekeepers,” explains David Hetherington, manager of the Cairngorms Wildcat Project
His view is shared by Kerry Kilshaw, part of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit
(WildCRU) at the University of Oxford’s zoology department. “In general, sporting estates are coming on board with wildcat conservation,” she says. “They’re keen to do their bit, and the estate where I worked couldn’t have been more helpful.”
The famous four
This project has included the most intensive use ever of camera-traps to discover more about the wildcats of the Cairngorms National Park
. Usually attached to trees and triggered by movement, or set on a timer to take photos at regular intervals, such devices are more typically associated with mammal surveys abroad.
“I’ve done camera-trapping in Central America,” Kerry tells me, “and colleagues have used this kit all around the world to study larger cats such as tigers and snow leopards. Perhaps one reason that they haven’t been seen so much in the UK is that they are relatively expensive and can be labour-intensive to check.”
Kerry’s project, which was carried out last winter, involved 40 cameras placed at 20 different locations. The results were exciting. Though she didn’t see any wildcats in the flesh, she did find plenty of evidence of their presence, such as scats and pawprints in the snow.
Best of all, among images of pine martens and other animals, the camera-traps had photographed no fewer than four different wildcats. After a detailed, almost forensic, examination, all four were found to have true wildcat markings.
Such precise identification is important. Until recently, hybridisation with household tabbies meant that there was much debate about which combinations of characters, such as tail rings, stripes and coat colour, signified a ‘wild’ wildcat. For years, researchers devoted a lot of energy to getting a clearer picture of these features and of Scottish wildcat genetics.