Wildcats of Baden-Wurttemberg

Baden-Wurttemberg is a state in the south west of Germany, bordering with Switzerland in the south and France in the west, with the neighbouring German state of Bavaria to the east. Yesterday I had my first meeting of the trip, with Sabrina Streif of ForstBW (in English, the Forestry Research and Research Institute Baden-Wurttemberg), where she works in Wildlife Ecology (and is also completing a PhD in wildcat ecology). Sabrina has been researching the wildcats in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg for many years, including conducting population surveys with lure sticks, collecting and analysing road-kill samples, and radio-collaring individual cats to investigate spatial behaviour and habitat use. She was an exceptionally welcoming, friendly and helpful host, and I can’t thank her enough. And she answered ALL of my research questions (and there are a LOT) and provided me with so much information and material that I had to go back to the hotel and spend three hours writing everything down (and I was also taking notes as we talked). Sabrina showed me videos and photos of the cats and their trapping methods, and then took me out to see the habitat, very close to Freiburg, where the wildcats live. I will just mention a few interesting points below:

Two wildcats from Sabrina’s study population, both died recently on the roads. The stuffed animal is from several years ago, and it is darker than Sabrina normally expects from her local wildcats (the striping on the side is quite visible). The second one died this year, and was very pale (for me, much paler than Scottish wildcats!). Sabrina said this is what they expect the German cats more to look like – ‘washed-out’ striping, NOT ‘tabby’ markings, which they associate more with domestic cats.

The biggest threats

The biggest threat to wildcats in Germany may be habitat fragmentation. Fragmentation can increase the risks of road mortality (because wildcats must cross more roads to get to smaller fragments of habitat) and it could also increase the risks of hybridisation with domestic cats. Sabrina described fragmentation and road mortality as the main threat to her wildcats, and when she showed me the recent freezer samples, I could see why.

Wildcats found dead on the road, all from this year. The cats will be postmortem’d and samples sent for disease screening and genetic analysis. The wildcats are then stuffed and used for education in museums and schools. At Scottish Wildcat Action, we don’t get anything like this number of cats in such a short space of time (and certainly not this many wildcats!). Interestingly, their peak periods for roadkill are November and February times, which tie in with breeding and dispersal, and are similar to what we see in Scotland.

Habitat

Habitat is undoubtedly going to be one of the crucial factors in either preventing or promoting hybridisation. The level of hybridisation in the Baden-Wurttemberg wildcats is relatively very low – around 4% – even though they are a recolonising population (they were extinct in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg from hunting/persecution in 1912, and have since recolonised from other areas). So what does the habitat look like, and how do the wildcats use it? Luckily, Sabrina was kind enough to drive me out to her study site, and since she has radio collared many individuals, their spatial behaviour within this habitat is known.

A view over the wildcat habitat near Freiburg, with the vineyeards in the front, a small hamlet, and the Black Forest in the distance. The forest patches are large and highly structured – they are virtually impenetrable to people. The agricultural ground is also highly structured and diverse, with lots of cover (plenty of trees, wildflower verges, shrubs and hedgerows) and very likely plenty of prey. Most are growing maize.
Floodplain forests next to the river Rhein. This dense patch of forest was home to 7 female wildcats, and regularly used by two males (all collared by Sabrina and her colleagues). The forest is so dense and highly structured that you can’t easily walk through it – Sabrina and her team could rarely track the animals to den sites because the signal would bounce, and because the dens were so hard to find in all this vegetation!

The wildcats here seem to live at a very high density, with relatively small home ranges compared to other populations, suggesting that this is very good wildcat habitat that can support many individuals. When I asked Sabrina if this was ‘optimal’ wildcat habitat, she gave me a very good answer: it is optimal for the individuals, but not for the population, because it is quite fragmented and has such high risks from roads. The wildcats here stay very much inside the forests, rarely venturing out into open habitat (especially the females). They did not venture into human settlements at all, and were only recorded near to human settlement when that settlement happened to be very close to the forest (so the people get close to the forest, the wildcats do not get close to the people). So despite all the structured, diverse open habitats, the wildcats in this area of Baden-Wurttemberg mostly stay in their forests, and in doing so, may rarely come into direct contact with feral cats. But we don’t know that for sure, because we have not radio-tracked the feral cats, so it remains a hypothesis.

Finally

Huge thanks to my host Sabrina for sharing all of this information with me. Here is an example of some not-so-good taxidermy of a German wildcats 🙂

I found it very interesting that apparently German wildcats were often stuffed with dead birds in their mouths, rather than the Scottish way, which is to make them snarling.

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