There is no chance I shall see a wildcat during my stay as a guest speaker at the Grant Arms in Grantown on Spey. This did not deter me from getting up this morning at three to trawl a local lane, helpfully suggested by photographer Ben Locke, where in the past wildcats have been seen. Still close to people and their homes roe deer sprang from the roadside, crossing sheep fences with an easy bound. Further along this small wild road, lined in lank heathers and stunted plantation conifers, my headlights caught many eyes of red deer, flashing like the sides of silver fish in a salt sea shoal. Rabbits skipped from the verge and over tousled heathers a mountain hare scuttled, rump down, short ears raised, gait taut, quite different from the lazy lope of brown hares round my Norfolk home.
I do not care I shall not see a wildcat. Birders, aware how privileged I am to see so much of the world, are often visibly perturbed that I have no list, no idea how many birds or mammals I have seen, and that I - quite genuinely - have no hitlist of species I can't live without seeing. To be more honest than I ought here, I quite enjoy messing with such acquisitive birders and their way of watching nature which, I feel, reduces the soaring magnificence of birds and their wild to ticks on a page, to currency with which to outcompete others, to hierarchical games.
I shall not be downhearted when I go home not having seen a wildcat. For I shall have tried, and I shall surely have seen and experienced many beautiful things in the effort. I shall instead be downhearted - beyond consolation - if (more likely, alas, when) the wildcat becomes extinct in Scotland and the UK. Part of the reason I shall not see a wildcat is that I am here only a short while, looking for a famously elusive animal (though no more elusive than a snow leopard or a flat-headed cat). The chief reason, however, is that the wildcat stands on the very edge of extinction in our country: first shot and trapped out of the huge majority of its range as vermin, and now - a more insidious peril still - hybrdised out of existence by domestic cats and the historic carelessness of their owners.
There are frighteningly few pure wildcats left in Scotland, if any at all. Most of the animals still here are hybrids. Conservation efforts for the wildcat have several different strands, and widely different philosophical bases. Though I shall spare no effort to see a wildcat, or a wildcat hybrid, during the week that I am here, it matters more to me to meet the people who are involved in the wildcat's conservation, to hear what they are doing, and to understand what hope there is for its future.
My search for the wildcat and for understanding of its landscape and conservation begins today.