Scottish Wildcat

The Scottish Wildcat is clinging on to existence. Current estimates vary but suggest there are as few as 35-400 pure individuals left, making it quite possibly the rarest mammal on the planet. Like many other species, they are prone to many threats such as persecution and habitat loss, but by far the biggest threat today is hybridisation. There is some good work taking place now in areas of Scotland to protect the last remaining Wildcats with habitat protection, TNR programmes, education and so on. I personally find it strange (and a bit of a national embarrassment) that so much money and effort is directed towards iconic foreign species (great though that is), many of which face a less uncertain future than the Scottish Wildcat, whilst at the same time our own only endemic wild cat species is spiralling towards extinction.

The Scottish Wildcat has long been my holy grail of British mammals. More than any other British species, this is the one I’ve always wanted to see and get a photo of. Getting a photo of a decent quality was never the aim – just getting any photo at all would do! Over the last couple of years, I’ve made numerous trips attempting to capturing a Scottish Wildcat on camera, both in the Cairngorms and more so in western Scotland. Living roughly a 500 mile drive away from the sheer vastness that is Wildcat country, it’s been a bit of a challenge.

The scene of my first wildcat sighting

I’ve spent many nights sat out in the remotest parts of the western Highlands in good Wildcat habitat. My locations were based on research, tip-offs, and personal hunches about Wildcat behaviour. Each night I headed out, I did so full of optimism and expectation, but each time the epic scale of the landscape versus the sobering population statistics quickly turned hope in to the realisation that this was possibly nothing more than an exercise in futility. It’s a great part of the country for mammal watching though, and if I’d actually been looking for Red Deer, Pine marten and Hedgehogs, then these nights would have been an incredible success! After about the fifth successive night of this on one such trip, sat in the car, engine off, lights out, in pitch black with occasional bursts of a flashlight to check the area for eye-shine, I decided to move along the road a bit further, if only to relieve the boredom. I turned on the headlights, flicked on the full beam, and there crossing the road was the unmistakable silhouette of a cat. In utter disbelief I just stared. Despite all the time and effort, I wasn’t prepared to actually see a cat! It took maybe three seconds to disappear in to the darkness, never to be seen again.

On a subsequent trip, and another series of disappointing evenings spent searching the same area where I’d briefly seen that original cat, I was travelling back to my accommodation through an area that I’d passed through many times before. It was late, and I was driving fairly slowly, looking out for any wildlife along the way. Suddenly, in the car headlights a cat appeared in the road, crossing from woodland on the one side to more open ground on the other. It crossed quickly, and disappeared immediately once it reached the other side, but it was a big, stocky cat, with pelage markings (as best as I could tell in the short time I had to observe it) that fitted the bill. Like that first cat, once it was gone, it was gone for good. Wildcats do not want to be seen, and there’s simply no point in pursuing one, especially over dodgy terrain in the darkness.

Thirteen months passed until my next serious attempt at searching for Wildcats on the west coast. I’d spent time in the Cairngorms in between – an area which gave me even less reason for optimism, given the human population, number of domestic cats, ferals and hybrids, not to mention the number of grouse moors. This trip was much like those before it in terms of my strategy. Nights would be spent out in the field, and camera traps would be placed at strategic locations along a 30 or so mile stretch. The nights in the field, this time equipped with a night vision scope, yielded no cats again. On the morning I was due to head home, I retrieved all the camera traps. Impatience got the better of me immediately, and rather than waiting until I got home, I checked the contents of the SD cards as I collected them. By the time there was just one more camera trap to collect, I’d amassed a lot of pictures of Pine marten, Red Squirrel, Red Deer, Badger, various rodents, small birds… no cats. The final camera was set to capture stills rather than video, and its IR beam wasn’t as powerful as it could have been. It was placed in the same woodland that the cat who had crossed the road had left 13 months beforehand. The SD card was retrieved and showed the usual suspects: deer, badger, squirrel, etc. Then came this…

The lack of detail on the pictures could well have resulted in me dismissing this cat, but it was clearly wearing a radio collar. Further investigations led me to finding out the identity of this this cat (a male) and getting to see a daytime photo of it when it was captured in order to be radio-collared. It’s actually a pretty special looking cat with classic markings – something that is completely lost in these pictures. The cat spent 58 seconds in the frame before noticing the camera and quickly disappearing. Like the mammals that came before it, it was attracted by the scent I’d laid down when I set the camera up. These pictures could have been better in so many ways, but I was in no position to complain! Sadly, this cat has since been found dead, a victim of a collision with a car, no doubt on the very same road that I had seen it run in front of my own car.

In no way do I consider this to be mission complete. I have since spent further time on the west coast working for a Wildcat conservation project, and intend to one day make further attempts of my own to connect with this most rare, special and elusive of British mammals.