Wildcats in Scotland

The story so far

European wildcats crossed from the Continent into Britain after the end of the last Ice Age, around 9,000 years ago. Once widespread, the species is now on the brink of extinction in Scotland. A sad history of habitat loss, persecution and, more recently, breeding with domestic cats, has forced the Highland Tiger to a point where the population is no longer viable.  Without urgent action, wildcats will be lost forever from our shores.

Scottish wildcat conservation timeline

  • 500 BCE

    Cats arrive

    Thousands of years after the European wildcat comes to Britain, Near Eastern cats arrive. These have been domesticated for some time and are brought these as pets to Britain. There are now two types of small cat on the British mainland.

  • 1880 — 1890

    Wildcats are in trouble

    A combination of a change in land use and the increased intensity of predator control in the Victorian era is bad news. There are now no wildcats left in England or Wales and they are pushed back to the far north and west of Scotland.

  • 1915 — 1980

    Recolonisation

    During and after the First World War, there is less gamekeeping activity meaning less persecution. This is also the start of a significant change in land use - reafforestation.

    Wildcats start to range further afield and meet mostly domestic cats as they expand their range.

  • 1970 — 1990

    Growing awareness of the threat from interbreeding

    It is recognised that the few remaining wildcats have been interbreeding with and catching disease from feral cats. This is considered the biggest threat to the survival of wildcats in Scotland.

  • 1988

    Law on their side

    Following a history of wildcat persecution which contributed to their decline, wildcats are legally protected for the first time. It is now illegal to kill or disturb a wildcat.

  • 1990 — 2000

    Research of wild-living cats

    Important research on the ecology of all wild-living cats is conducted, including wildcats, hybrids and feral cats, highlighting the degree of mixing.

    Wildcats become a European Protected Species. They are really on the edge of extinction.

  • 2005

    How to identify a wildcat

    To protect the wildcat, and distinguish it from other cats, a classification based on their pelage (markings on their coat) is developed. We now know they have a distinctive bushy tail with black rings and a blunt tip as well as other key coat markings.

  • 2009 — 2012

    Cairngorms project launched

    A pilot project is launched to trial conservation action in an area in the Cairngorms where cats with the distinctive wildcat markings have been sighted.

     

  • 2013

    Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan

    The findings from the pilot project are used to develop an ambitious conservation plan. It unites a large group of leading organisations and experts who are keen to help save our wildcats.

  • 2015 — 2019

    Taking action

    Scottish Wildcat Action launches with four project officers working in six priority areas. Conservation activities focus on wildcat camera trapping research, data collection, threat reduction (eg. Trap Neuter Vaccinate and Release), education and conservation breeding.

     

  • 2019

    No viable wild population

    A report published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Cat Specialist Group concluded there is no longer a viable wildcat population living wild in Scotland, with hybridisation with domestic cats the major threat to their survival. This means the extinction of the species is highly likely without carefully carried out wildcat releases.

  • 2020

    Saving Wildcats

    Building on the work of the Scottish Wildcat Action partnership, the Saving Wildcats (#SWAforLIFE) recovery project includes the development of the UK’s first conservation breeding for release centre.

    Situated at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park near Aviemore, the centre will provide facilities for breeding, veterinary care, remote monitoring and training, with wildcats potentially being released into Cairngorms National Park.

    Over the next six years, RZSS will lead the Saving Wildcats project in collaboration with NatureScot, the Cairngorms National Park Authority, Forestry and Land Scotland, as well as European partners Norden’s Ark from Sweden, which specialises in the restoration and conservation of Sweden’s native wildlife, and Spain’s Junta De Andalucía which led the successful recovery of the Iberian lynx, once the planet's most endangered cat species. 

    With your support, we can secure a future for the beautiful Highland Tiger. Find out how you can help

     

Give wildcats a future

With your support, we can secure a future for the beautiful Highland Tiger.