Saturday, 6 June 2015


This evening did not at all go as I had planned.

No sooner had I settled into the grass on my mound overlooking the loch than I was approached by a white-haired man with the tanned skin of those who live outdoors and Leica binoculars around his neck. He was friendliness itself but, as the warden of the loch and the owner of its fishing, he wanted to check a mistake on my car parking pass and, affably, he wanted to point out that I should be in the hide overlooking the loch, not crouched in the grass by the railway line.

We hit it off, speaking of Slavonian and little grebes and the nesting of wigeon and greylags. His was a lovely sense of humour and when I asked whether an osprey fished the loch he replied, 'Yes, and he doesn't have a permit either.'

I chanced a comment that, as interested as I was in birds, I was looking for cats. My new friend became yet more affable and open, recounting tales of wildcats he has seen in his 72 years, where, when and how. He agreed that the railway line by which I was sitting was good, and tore through so many other very local sites in which he has seen cats that I quite lost track.

Friends appeared and he sent them to their beats on the loch's shore for the night's fishing. It was clear to me now that I would not see a wildcat here tonight. But he had mentioned another site, just a few hundred metres along the railway, where cats lived wild in a dump, some of them hybrids, yes, but some of them wildcats.

We bade a friendly farewell and I drove the short distance to his site. It took me a while to find it, as several unmade roads led to places of abandonment and dereliction. As ugly and contaminated as the place was, as far from the pristine river at which I've been spending my dawns, it felt right. It was heavy with rabbits and a roe deer grazed at the edge of a wasted patch of ground. I have seen wild creatures in so many unprepossessing places that I have long since given up trying to project onto them my own judgement on how they ought to behave.

As I reached the right grubby place, a cat bolted from the track in front of me. A tabby, that was all I could see before it was gone. It fled in the manner of something wild, something that fears and loathes humanity. I parked my car, facing the pile of waste in which my fisherman friend said the cats lived, and I twiddled my thumbs. I twiddled my thumbs some more, and tried squeaking through my partly open window (certain success with ocelots). I became aware that from the waste pile a face was staring at me. A wild face, a tabby face.

It stared. And I stared. And I squeaked. And after a while, this tabby face became a cat and this cat crossed the messy grass towards me and reached the open ground by my car. Despite the wildness of its face, this tabby - a well grown kitten - had far more domestic genes than wild. The features of wildcats, in shape, and coat, were diluted so far as to be almost lost. My heart sank.

The tabby retreated to its pile of waste. I twiddled my thumbs still more until I saw that the tabby was staring fixedly into the birch-scrubby grass to my right. Staring back from here - at me - was a perfect wildcat face with ice green eyes and hatred of humans in its being. My heart beat double time. It slipped into the birches, this cat, and my heart beat faster still on seeing its tail: blunt, bushy and banded in black.

From the birches the big-tailed, band-tailed cat crossed the track to join the tabby kitten in the waste-pile. As it went up the pile I saw on its nape the classic wildcat sign of strong black lengthways bars, nothing like the pencilled stripes of housecats. But its tail: as thick and black-tipped as it was, between its bands ran a hint from the rump of a black stripe. A hybrid sign.

Then my cat turned to look at me and for all the wildcat perfection of its face, for all the difference between this cat and its tabby kitten, the tiny half-suggested cirrus of white on its chest betrayed it. Phenotypically my cat was quite as much wildcat as not. But it was not.

The truth is that no wildcat in Scotland is, most likely, a pure wildcat. As will soon be discussed in a blog post emerging from a conversation last week with Doug Richardson of the Highland Wildlife Park, extensive trapping and genetic testing have found not a single pure cat here. Some though are purer than others. And, as aesthetic a judgement as it is, some look purer than others. My cat had many features of a good wildcat, but was clearly also a hybrid.

I am elated though. I have, for all my work this week, seen some wildcat genes expressed in an animal which hated me. I have learned much too. And in three hours I get up again to try one last time to see a cat at my first site by a cold, stony river, where the deer graze and the grouse bow their black heads.

A dump under the Cairngorms: a fitting place to
see a wildcat hybrid

Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearonii                3
serval Leptailurus serval serval                    3
leopard Panthera pardus suahelicus            2
lion Panthera leo nubica                              78
snow leopard Panthera uncia                       3
jungle cat Felis chaus                                   2
tiger Panthera tigris tigris                            13
leopard Panthera pardus fusca                    4
lion Panthera leo persica                              7
leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis           15
flat-headed cat Prionailurus planiceps          1
wildcat hybrid Felis silvestris grampia/catus  1

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