Wildlife In Focus | European Wildcat

David Coultham

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Species Guide on the Wildcat (Felis silvestris)

The Wildcat (Felis silvestris) is colloquially known as the Scottish Wildcat or the Highland Tiger in the U.K.

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Conservation Status

Some Wildcat conservation organizations in the U.K. claim there is a Scottish Wildcat subspecies of Felis silverstris, as there is circumstantial evidence that historically the Scottish variant was significantly larger than its European cousins. At least one of these organizations promotes folk tales of this Scottish variant being large enough to kill a human! Whilst the folk tales romanticize the Wildcat as the epitome of the wild spirit of the Highlands, unfortunately from a scientific viewpoint whether there is or ever was any basis for this Scottish subspecies is impossible to prove, and deemed a rather weak argument given the natural variability of the Wildcat characteristics in the U.K. and across the rest of Europe1.

Only a handful of Wildcats remain in the U.K. and as their colloquial name suggests, are located in the Scottish Highlands. Current initiatives to try and recover the species are focussed on captive breeding programs and then releasing them into the wild. However, one leading conservationist opinion on this is that even the Wildcats held in captivity have around 18% domestic cat DNA. Accordingly, they are already too far gone to rescue from a genetic viewpoint. Following this logic, the only viable option is a reintroduction program with pure Wildcats from Eastern Europe.3 2000 years of isolation and a few decades of interbreeding with domestic cats have rendered the Scottish Wildcats genomically extinct.2

However, other conservationists are more optimistic, and as recently as quarter four of 2023, Nineteen wildcats were released in Scotland.4 In 2024 it was announced that there are also plans to release Wildcats into England under a similar scheme.5

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has logged the Wildcat as Critically Endangered in the U.K., but Least Concern from a Global Conservation viewpoint. Notably, the IUCN does not refer to any sub-species of Felis silvestris but instead refers to “Wildcats in Scotland”.2

Conservation Status

Conservation Status


Wildcats predominantly feed on small mammals such as birds, reptiles, fish and small mammals such as rabbits and voles.

Image Credit | WildMediaSK


The Wildcats natural habitat is broad-leaved forests. Wildcats in Scotland have had to adapt to live in a variety of habitats due to deforestation. They do though avoid human-inhabited areas. Based on trail cam footage conducted between 2010 and 2013 it is estimated that there may only be up to 300 or so individuals left in the wild.

Note that this map is for a rough illustration of animal distribution across the U.K., whereby light green indicates verified spottings of Wildcats as well as indicative spottings by credible witnesses.2


The Wildcat fur varies from a brownish to grey color, their fur being longer than a domestic cat. They have five stripes on the forehead and a dark stripe from the shoulders down their spine up to the base of the tail. They have irregular dark stripes on their sides. Their tails are significantly stouter and more bushy than a domestic cat, with two or three black rings and a black tail tip.6

To the untrained eye, they could be mistaken for a domestic tabby. The illustration below details some of the key differences between a domestic cat and a Wildcat.


Wildcats use a variety of environments as dens including rock cairns, logging piles, tree roots, old fox dens, and badger sets, or even rabbit warrens. They are sexually mature at 1 year old and typically have a single litter in early spring. If however the first litter is lost, they will have a second litter mid-summer. Females give birth to up to 8 kittens albeit the average is 3-4. The kittens leave their mothers at 5 to 6 months old.

Image Credit | WildMediaSK


The Wildcat is typically larger than a domestic cat. Males weigh up to 8kg but average 5kg. Females weigh on average 3.5kg. Wildcat weight varies by up to 2.5kg seasonally.7 Only 7% of Wildcats in Scotland live beyond 6 years in the wild. The maximum age for females in the wild is observed to be 10 years, and 8 years for males.8 Wildcats live up to 15 years in captivity.


They have no natural predators, although their dens are subject to predation by other mammals.


  1. Easterbee N., Hepburn L. V. & Jefferies D. J. 1991. Survey of the status and distribution of the wildcat in Scotland, 1983-1987. Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland
  2. Conservation of the wildcat (Felis silvestris) in Scotland: Review of the conservation status and assessment of conservation activities
  3. Science
  4. Wildcats released in Scottish Highlands to prevent extinction in the UK: Guardian
  5. Wildcats to be released in England for first time in 500 years: Telegraph
  6. Pocock, R.I. (1951). Felis silvestris, Schreber”Catalogue of the Genus Felis. London, UK: Trustees of the British Museum. pp. 29−50.
  7. Condé, B. & Schauenberg, P. (1971). “Le poids du chat forestier d ́Europe (Felis silvestris Schreber, 1777)” [Weight of the European forest wildcat]. Revue Suisse de Zoologie (in French). 78: 295–315.
  8. Balharry D. & Daniels M. J. 1998. Wild living cats in Scotland. Scottish Natural Heritage Research, Survey and Monitoring Report. 83 pp.
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