The Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) is a subspecies of the wildcat that inhabits forests of Western, Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, as well as Turkey and the Caucasus Mountains; it has been extirpated from Scandinavia, England, and Wales.
The wildcat physically resembles a domesticated cat in most respects. Although domesticated breeds show a great variety of shapes and colours, wild species are pale yellow to medium-brown with black stripes or spots. The underparts are light grey,and sometimes marked with black spots.
Wildcats range from 45 to 80 centimetres (18 to 31 in) in length, and weigh between 3 and 6 kilograms (6.6 and 13 lb). Shoulder height averages about 35 centimetres (14 in) and tail length is about 30 centimetres (12 in). However, other sources can be misleading and sometimes say that the Scottish Wildcat is twice the size of a domestic cat, but this is not true domestic cats are around the same size.
Wildcats also have the same range of vocalisations as domestic cats, including purring, meowing, hissing, and growling. Except during the mating season, they tend to be quiet animals, vocalising only when close to each other. A wildcat's meow has been described as being like a domestic cat's only without the 'e'; more like 'mau'.
The wildcat is extremely wary of humans, and avoids approaching human settlements. It lives in solitude and holds a territory of anything from 1.5 to 12 square kilometres (0.58 to 4.6 sq mi), depending on the local environment. Males tend to hold larger territories than females, and their ranges overlap those of from three to six neighbouring females. Wildcats of both sexes mark their ranges by depositing faeces in prominent locations and by leaving scent marks through urine spraying, cheek rubbing, and scratching the ground.
The female Scottish Wildcat is known to be an extremely devoted parent, especially when it comes to driving away predators. One individual was even recorded to have fought and killed an adult golden eagle who was attacking her kits, even though she was horribly wounded in the process. A female wildcat also makes sure the nest is as clean as possible, carrying away any faeces or any other debris far away from the site. This is to make sure predators do not smell the kits too easily and track them down. However, no-one is certain whether the male plays a part in parenting. Some naturalists say that, like domestic cats, the male leaves the family as soon as he has mated with the female and may even eat the kits if he finds them. Other sources say that the male stays with the female until the kits have left the nest before leaving, and others say that he stays with her for life, so it is very confusing.
The wildcat is predominantly a carnivore; insects and plants are minor parts of its diet. Regardless of subspecies, most of its prey consists of small mammals, mainly rodents and rabbits and lizards. Wildcats are, however, opportunistic predators, and have also been observed to eat amphibians, fish and weasels.
Wildcats typically breed only once a year, although a second litter may be produced if the first dies early. The European wildcat breeds between February and March. Gestation is from 56 to 69 days.
The mother prepares an underground den or other sheltered location before giving birth. In the wild, litter sizes range from one to five kittens, with three or four being the most common.The kittens weigh between 75 and 150 grams (2.6 and 5.3 oz) at birth, and are blind and helpless. They are initially spotted, but the spots may fuse into stripes as the cat ages. The eyes open after seven to twelve days, and they begin to hunt live prey at ten to twelve weeks of age. They are fully weaned at two months, begin to live independently after about three months, and have dispersed to establish their own territories within a year, by which time they are sexually mature.
Wildcats live up to sixteen years in captivity.
The Wild Cat was once found throughout Europe, excluding Ireland, Scandinavia, and some of the smaller islands.
As might be expected, given their wide distribution, wildcats are able to adapt to a range of different habitats. They require some degree of cover from which to stalk or ambush their prey, but almost any form of cover is suitable, including scrubland, rocky terrain, or agricultural land. They are commonly found in deciduous or tropical woodland, but also inhabit heathland, savannah, and swamp. They avoid areas with heavy winter snowfall, or where there is a limited supply of water.
Wildcats were common in the European Pleistocene era; when the ice vanished, they became adapted to a life in dense forests. In most European countries they have become very rare. Although legally protected, they are still sometimes shot by hunters mistaking them for domestic cats that have turned feral, as feral cats are legally controlled on many estates, and accidents can occur. In the Scottish Highlands, where approximately 400 are thought to be remaining in the wild, interbreeding with feral cats is a significant threat to the wild population. Although Spain and Portugal are the West European countries with the greatest population of wild cats, the animals in these region are threatened by breeding with feral cats and loss of habitat. The easternmost populations have low levels of domestic cat hybridization. As a result, the Scottish Wildcat is the rarest mammal in Britain, with the pine marten in second place.