You may have been to Wingham recently to see the animals and their keepers going about their business. Perhaps you took a stroll along the top to see the pumas, jaguars and of course the lions. As you walk pass the lions you may stop briefly at the next enclosure and turn to the sign that marks its inhabitants, the Scottish Wildcat. It is never long before I hear the phrase, “they’re just normal cats” and without raising my head I know that someone has just passed the wildcat enclosure.
This is where Bindy and Mindy live and the fact it usually takes a good 5 minutes or so to spot just one of them, should earn them a bit of attention. They may have a very similar appearance to your everyday tabby cat but that is where the similarity ends. Mindy is 11 years old and Bindy is 12 so they are not young girls, but this doesn’t stop them making short work of their high beams and platforms.
Threats to the Highland Tiger
The Scottish wildcat can be found exactly where its name suggests, up in the rough terrain and unforgiving weather of Scotland. They originated from a population of European wildcats that became isolated by the English Channel, around 9000 years ago and are now recognised as a separate subspecies.
While it is well adapted to the harsh conditions it finds itself in today, its very existence is under threat. The wildcat is the only remaining wild member of the cat family in the UK and one of our rarest and most endangered mammals, it’s thought that only 100 may now remain in the wild.
One of the biggest problems facing them is hybridisation. This occurs when the wildcats breed with feral domestic cats and so diluting their genes. This makes it very difficult to estimate how many there are as the hybrids can look very similar, especially when seen at a distance. This is often the case as they are very elusive in their nature and as you can see by our two at Wingham, very well camouflaged. It is also advised that you give them some distance as they can be very fierce when they feel threatened. With their stripes and overall feistiness that has led people to call them the highland tiger.
On top of hybridisation, the highland tiger also faces accidental persecution, where they are shot accidentally when mistaken for feral cats as well as disease passed on to them.
Recognising a wildcat can be difficult. Their stripes are nearly all unbroken and they have few if any spots. The black line running down their back stops at the tail, which has several very distinct black bands and a black tip. The tail itself is thick and rounded at the end. The legs are longer than a domestic cat and the males are larger. The females are at least the same size if not bigger themselves. A true wildcat should have no white on it so white paws are a big giveaway for a tabby.
Scottish wildcats in the wild live around 7 years but in captivity they can reach 15 years old so our girls will hopefully be with us a few more years yet.
One of their preferred prey species is rabbit in the wild but our two girls share a liking for chicks too, which they carefully remove from their toys. Their favourite pastime however, is probably sleeping, which they spend a vast amount of time on during the day. This is not unusual as they are generally nocturnal or crepuscular, meaning they are active at night or at dawn and dusk. Bindy can usually be found near the top of the tree, tucked into a groove between the trunk and a branch. While Mindy favours several spots on the ground either at the very back or to the right side where the grass is longer.
There is a lot more I could say about the highland tiger and hopefully you will venture back down to us and spend some time really getting to know our two girls.