Once, Britain had lynx, wolves, and brown bears. But these were wiped from our island over the centuries. Now, one of our last remaining large wild land predators is on the verge of following them. And unlike the others, it is irreplaceable. As a sub species of its own, reintroduction will be impossible – there is nowhere else they can come from. Once they are gone, they are gone.
For the Scottish wildcat to be lost to the world would be a great tragedy. I don’t see any moral case for why it is any less significant than the grizzly bear – a sub-species of brown bear.
For me, the imminent extinction of this magnificent mammal is a great tragedy. My childhood was punctuated by my parents’ sightings of nests in trees near our home. A few years ago, a family – one of the few remaining – lived in our back garden. The kittens would play in view of the kitchen window.
But these are far from domestic animals, and notably different from their now domesticated Middle Easter cousins Felis silvestris catus. They are significantly bigger – a male wildcat can be up to a metre long and can weigh up to 7.3 kilos. They have thick, stripy, bushy tails. It is said that they are impossible to tame – even when bred in captivity, they insist on freedom.
A mixture of shooting by game keepers to protect their birds, and interbreeding with feral domestic cats has driven one of Britain’s most amazing creatures – and one of our few unique mammal sub-species – to the brink. If they aren’t saved now, they never can be.
Ultimately, the tale of wildcats is a sad one, and a broader one. In Britain’s few remaining wildernesses, wildlife has long been seen as a nuisance. It gets in the way of the playgrounds of the mega-rich.
We see this in the rise of the shooting estates from the mounds of money built by the industrial revolution, and we see it in Donald Trump’s golf courses today: fashioned from global flows of speculative capital. If someone is paying many thousands of pounds to shoot, fish, or putt, then it is crucial that every minute of their wilderness experience is manicured. And that can’t happen if a cat has scared away the pheasants.
If we value land only for the short term profit which can be squeezed from it, rather than by counting all of the things about which we care, then species like wildcats will never have a chance: they don’t qualify. The control of the land by a profiteering few is surely part of the problem.
But there is another part too. I am often amazed to discover how few people know that Britain has its own sub-species of wildcat. So alienated are we from our countryside that we are more likely to know of the plight of the Siberian tiger than we are of that of our own closest equivalent. And I can’t help but think that this is for the same reason – a part of the same phenomenon.
Let me put it this way. Over the course of the 20th century, the people of the world managed to save – so far – Asian tigers from extinction. If everyone in Britain knew that our own wildcat was similarly endangered, would we have demanded that the requisite action be taken to save it? I suspect so.
And so why is it that we don’t know? Is it that Scotland has the most concentrated land ownership pattern in Europe? That those who like to shoot grouse are the same people as those who control our media?
Whatever the reason, this is their last stand. Some time around 500 years ago, the last wolf in Britain was killed. And perhaps, some time in the next couple of years, the last of the Scottish Wild Cats will die. Let’s hope that not out legacy.
To find out more about Scottish Wildcats, see the Scottish Wildcat Association.