Background

Hello, my name is Dr Keri Langridge and I am a Project Officer for the National conservation partnership Scottish Wildcat Action.

In March 2019 I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship (see WCMT) to travel across continental Europe to visit wildcat experts and investigate hybridisation in European wildcats.

Three important things about Scottish wildcats:

  1. They are the same species as European wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris).
  2. They used to be British wildcats but were hunted and persecuted to extinction in England and Wales by 1850 and southern Scotland by 1915.
  3. They can hybridise (cross-breed) with domestic cats Felis catus, which are descended from a different wildcat species, the African wildcat (Felis lybica) and produce fertile offspring. The wildcat population in northern Scotland is now 100% hybridised with domestic cats, such that no ‘pure’ wildcats remain and there is a complete genetic continuum from one species to the other.

We can learn a lot about wildcats and hybridisation in Scotland by comparing across European wildcat populations because:

  1. Hybridisation is far more advanced in Scotland than any other European country. Conservation strategies require sound knowledge of the behaviour and ecology of the target species, but we can only draw limited conclusions from studies with wild-living Scottish ‘wildcats’ because they are all hybridised with domestic cats.
  2. Experts on the continent have been monitoring wildcat populations, conducting behavioural and ecological research and implementing conservation programmes for many years.
  3. Although wildcat populations across continental Europe have also suffered severe declines and extinctions in the past, some have recovered and are now stable or even expanding.
  4. The level of hybridisation varies markedly across continental populations with very little to no hybridisation in some localities, allowing comparison of the potential causes and barriers to hybridisation across the range.

The underlying drivers of hybridisation between wildcats and domestic cats are poorly understood, but likely include environmental factors such as habitat degradation and fragmentation, and land-use changes in forestry and agriculture, as well as population (demographic) histories, particularly the level and extent of persecution, coupled with past and present levels of responsible domestic cat ownership and the settlement patterns of humans within the landscape.

During my travels I will interview local wildcat researchers and experts about their study populations, document and photograph the habitat of European wildcats, learn about the monitoring methods, behavioural research and conservation strategies used across the pond, and try my best to see some elusive wildcats in the wild!

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