The Aigas Wildcat Project
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Early in 2011 we initiated a Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia) breeding programme. We have erected a generous pen and a pair of adult cats was moved in. Our hope is that they will breed and that the offspring will be released into appropriate habitat to help boost the threatened population of this ancient and unique feline predator.
The Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia) is recognised as a sub-species distinct from European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) and is larger than it's continental cousins. It has the appearance of a large and muscular tabby cat with a broad, flat head and a distinct fur pattern, including the distinctive darks rings around the thick, blunt tail. However, any comparison with the domestic cat ends there. Wildcats are famously untameable, spitting and hissing ferociously if cornered and highly elusive in the wild making them tremendously hard to see.
Nevertheless, wildcats and domestic cats can hybridise and some fear that this is now the greatest threat to the gene pool of the Scottish wildcat. Other experts are less concerned, believing that natural selection will weed out the hybrids over time, as they are less adapted to survive the challenging conditions of the Highland wilderness.
In the wild, wildcats are solitary and occupy large ranges, which rarely overlap except for when the female is in oestrus, which she will advertise through her scent marking and a blood curdling wailing (no doubt the source of much Highland mythology!) Wildcats mark and defend their territories by scent marking with faeces, urine and with scent glands in their heads and feet. One way in which they will broadcast their presence is by urinating in streams. Unfortunately this instinctive behaviour also takes place in captivity and their water bowls need to be cleaned out regularly!
Wildcats are highly adapted predators, with retractable claws, muscular build and senses of vision, smell and hearing far in advance of our own. They are almost purely carnivorous and consume almost every part of their prey, which consists mostly of rabbits, voles and other rodents and some ground nesting birds. They will also occasionally eat long blades of grass, which is thought to help them dislodge intestinal worms and may also provide some supplementary vitamins.
Why We're Involved
What is clear is that wildcats need our help. They were once found right across mainland Britain but a combination of persecution and habitat loss has driven them to the uttermost extremes of the mainland and they are now under threat. Although now fully protected by the law, they still suffer through road kill and illegal trapping and poisoning and while numbers are almost impossible to assess accurately, it's thought that well under a thousand Scottish wildcats exist today.
There are a number of organisations and individuals breeding wildcats in Scotland and our pair came from a captive breeding programme. Wildcats mate in the middle of winter and after a gestation period of approx 55 days, they give birth to a litter of typically 3-4 kittens. They are weaned after a few weeks, independent after about six months and sexually mature at a year. It is our hope that our pair will produce young that we can release into the wild.