Quick facts

Common name(s): Scottish wildcat, Highland tiger

Scientific name: Felis silvestris

Family: Felidae

Habitat: broadleaf and mixed woodland

Diet: rabbits, hares, birds and small mammals

Predators: raptors and foxes may prey on kittens

Origin: native

What do Scottish wildcats look like?

The Scottish wildcat is a small feline with brown mottled fur and markings similar, but not identical, to that of a domestic tabby. It has a distinctive thick, blunt tail with a black tip and rings.

Not to be confused with: domestic cats. The wildcat is stockier and more muscular. It has longer legs and a larger, flatter head with ears that stick out to the side. Fur markings can also help identification: wildcats do not have white feet or stomachs, and do not have a line down their tails, unlike tabby cats.

Female Scottish wildcat feeding on rabbit

Credit: Laurie Campbell / naturepl.com

What do Scottish wildcats eat?

Scottish wildcats mainly feed on rabbits and small rodents such as voles. They will also take hares and a variety of bird species.
Skilled stealth hunters, they have excellent sight, hearing and sense of smell, as well as highly sensitive whiskers. They will stalk their prey and pounce after a patient wait. Wildcats are mainly crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) but they may hunt during the day if undisturbed.

How do Scottish wildcats breed?

Scottish wildcats are largely solitary but are more sociable during the mating season, which occurs from January to March. During this period males will search out females to mate with.

Wildcats produce a litter of between one and eight kittens after a gestation period of around two and a half months.

Mothers care for their kittens until they reach independence at around six months old. Juveniles leave to establish their own territories. Females reach sexual maturity at 12 months and males at around 9 months.

Scottish wildcat sitting among trees yawning

Credit: Jeff Lack / WTML

Where do Scottish wildcats live?

Wildcats are now only found in the Scottish Highlands. They don’t usually occur higher than 650 metres above sea level, and prefer to live and hunt in areas of dense cover such as woodland edges.

Did you know?

The folkloric creature Cat Sith in Scottish mythology is thought to be inspired by wildcats. It is a witch or fairy disguised as a large cat which prowls the Scottish Highlands.

Did you know?

The last record of a Scottish wildcat in England was in 1849.

Signs and spotting tips

Extremely rare and elusive, the wildcat is not often seen. They are most active at dawn and dusk and tend to avoid being out in poor weather such as rain or snow. You are slightly more likely to come across paw prints or scat (poo), although these are hard to distinguish from those of a domestic cat.

Threats and conservation

Scottish wildcats are one of our rarest mammals. A combination of hunting and habitat loss meant they disappeared from England and Wales close to 200 years ago.

Now, the greatest threat to the Scottish wildcat is hybridisation. Many wildcats breed with feral domestic cats. This dilutes the wildcat's genes and means the species’ distinctive features will eventually be lost. Hybridisation also makes identification and protection of true wildcats difficult. The numbers of true Scottish wildcats are extremely low, with some estimates of only 35, or less, left in the wild. Conservation groups are working to support the Scottish wildcat by neutering domestic cats in key wildcat areas. Captive breeding is also taking place to ensure the true wildcat gene survives.

Other threats faced by wildcats include road deaths, accidental killing in traps meant for other species and diseases spread by feral cats. The lack of suitable woodland habitat is another problem threatening the species’ survival.