TAILS OF A TRAVELLING CAT
Greetings, humans! I met my wildest cousins today! We made the two-and-a-bit hour trip by car up to the Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie in the Cairngorms. This was pretty far north. As we crossed the Forth, via the road bridge, we were able to marvel at the architectural wonders of the Forth Bridge which allows people (and most importantly cats) to cross the river by train without getting wet – very useful.
As soon as we had crossed the bridge and entered the Kingdom of Fife, things started to get hilly, but it wasn’t until we arrived in the Highlands proper that these earthen mounds could be called mountains. Sadly though, the mountains were either clad in ecologically-bad monocultures for forestry or stood bare for sheep to graze and game to be hunted. Little biodiversity existed on these mountains which had curiously round tops.
We crossed a mountain pass which can be closed off completely in times of bad weather on the A9. This is a strange road, blending stretches of dual carriageway with single, and alternating thus from Perth all the way to Inverness, a famous place not much further north than the Highland Wildlife Park.
We arrived at the Park and, after a re-energising cup of coffee for the humans (I have boundless energy), it was time to meet one of the head honchos of the wildcat conservation programme. We learnt many things about wildcats, particularly that the Scottish and European wildcats are in fact the same subspecies, so if all other conservation fails, European wildcats from the continent can be used to replenish the Scottish population. This sounds like good news, there are many wildcats in Scandinavia, Germany and several Eastern European countries. The Latin subspecies name of Felis silvestris grampia which is sometimes applied to the Scottish wildcat is in fact, then, false, it should just be referred to as Felis silvestris silvestris like the European wildcat. Domestic and feral cats are called Felis silvestris catus if you’re interested. If not, you now know it anyway. I’ll have you speaking fluent biological Latin in no time.
We also learnt that the feline taxa has recently been reorganised from 38 species with over 200 subspecies into 41 species with around 70 subspecies, interesting. They’ll have to re-write the family trees, or cladograms as scientists call them.
Another interesting piece of learning was that some wildcats can look like domestic cats but genetically be one of our elusive ‘Highland tigers’, whereas some can look like a wildcat but be genetically a feral domestic cat. Confusion – how can you know which is which? Does that mean my handy identification guide from Friday is useless? The answer lies in genetic testing and a cat found to be greater than 75% pure (basically had three wildcat grandparents and one feral) would be considered for captive breeding to re-establish the wild populations. Once habitat has been fixed, that’s a priority, as is the trap, neuter, vaccinate, release of feral domestics, captive bred wildcat kittens might be able to be released back to the wild.
Although it is partly explained on the identification chart from Friday, I can’t resist a chance to impart the wisdom I have learnt, so I will reiterate here the basics of wildcat identification: a wildcat is considered to have a wider jaw than a domestic cat and a black, unbroken dorsal stipe (for those not scientifically inclined that means the stipe running down the spine from the base of the head to the tail). In wildcats this stripe does not continue along the tail, but might do in tabby domestics. Wildcats also have four neck stripes which run parallel to each other from behind the ears to the base of the head, unbroken stripes (like me, no spots) down their sides, five tail rings (very precise) and a thick blunt tail. They don’t have white paws. I seem to be able to tick off the unbroken stripes, the wide jaw (although that is mostly my grin) and the blunt tail, am I secretly part wildcat? Sometimes I feel it.
After this highly educational discussion, it was wildcat food time – chicks and quails. The three adult wildcats were called Grumpy, Ness and Zack, the latter two had three kittens, although only one deigned to appear at this time. All the adults came out for lunch, very wise in my opinion. We were particularly pleased to see Ness pick up a chick and immediately take it to her kittens, that’s a good wild instinct.
On a side note, for animal welfare, live vertebrates are not allowed to be fed to carnivores in captivity in the UK, the birds were already dead and placed in likely places for the beautiful felines to ‘catch’.
Next up, was the grey wolves, who despite having eight apparently ‘cute’ cubs were not my idea of friends. Despite this, we were all approving of the group structure. In the wild wolves live in family groups, with a breeding pair and several non-breeding offspring from previous years’ litters who help with the rearing of the newest litter. This group had the breeding pair, this litter of cubs and six one year old wolves which were born to the pair last year. They were assisting with the new cubs and would be moving on to new wildlife parks once the youngest pack members have grown up a bit. In the wild, young wolves will disperse once they reach sexual maturity, so this will well replicate a real pack. Many captive wolf packs are just a load of unrelated wolves thrown together, this was much better.
After this we found some reindeer, a wolverine, polar bears and, most importantly, my other cousins, Amur tigers, snow leopards and a lynx. There used to be Pallas cats here but not anymore, much to my disappointment.
The Park also has a drive through area, for the herbivore section which included Przewalski's horses (the ancestors of modern horses), various assorted deer species, buffalos and bison, a family of elks (moose to our American friends) and Bactrian camels (those ones with two humps if you were wondering).
After the safari, we took the opportunity to say goodbye to my favourite cousins. We timed this well as it was once again food time and we got to see all three kittens (although we only managed to capture one on film, or pixels I suppose would be more accurate in this brave new world of technology). Before us, we beheld the future of this beautiful but endangered subspecies.
Well, perhaps I should make clear the European wildcat, which we now know the Scottish wildcat technically is, is classified by the IUCN as Least Concern, due to their high prevalence in the various countries I mentioned earlier. But the Scottish population may in fact be extinct in the wild due to the high levels of hybridisation with feral domestic cats. This means there are potentially no genetically pure wildcats left in Scotland, instead the few that remain have varying levels of hybridisation with domestic cats. Whist hybridisation might be the biggest risk to the Scottish wildcat, habitat loss and persecution also doesn’t help. The trap, neuter, vaccinate, release programmes I talked about before try to protect my wild cousins but of course, as we now know, looking like a domestic cat doesn’t mean the cats are genetically so. This can cause problems with who to neuter. Rewilding the habitat also needs to be done.
Hopefully the Scottish population can be saved (I will be optimistic, you can be realistic if the mood so takes you), I would love to see my wild cousins roaming free!
With a final goodbye to my relatives, we got back in the car for the long drive back to Edinburgh.
This is the end of my Scotland adventure, and what a series of cat-themed Tails it has been. I love this beautiful country, the hills, the trees, the tantalising promise that my cousins might be out there somewhere. One must visit again, I will return to see my cousins and investigate some more Scottish towns, perhaps I will make it to Inverness, but there’s also Dundee, Aberdeen, Dumfries and Galloway and many, many islands where the feral cats probably outnumber the people. Tomorrow Charlie and I shall board a train back to England and bid this land of haggis, kilts, shortbread, bagpipes and wee things goodbye. When it isn’t Raining this country is truly breath taking. So long, Scotland and farewell to you too, my human friends who have joined me in spirit on this adventure, eagerly (I can hope) tuning into my Tails to roam the Highlands or trek around Edinburgh with me. Allow me to end this entry with a few pictures from the journey back.
Until the next adventure folks,
Off to Scotland
Greetings, humans! Ah, it’s good to be back, ready for another trip, once more getting my Charlie to type up my witty ramblings. If you're new to Tails of a Travelling Cat (where have you been? You've missed so much) you can find out more about me (I am truly wonderful) on the About Me (and My Humans) Page, and also in the Before We Begin post at the start of the Europe Edition. I'll wait for you to catch up if you need to, but be quick, I don't have all day.
Right, now if you're up to speed, or have been a good human and were already conversant on who I am through having read the Europe Edition when it was published, let me introduce this second trip.
We’re off to Scotland, Edinburgh to be precise, another capital city. This time it is just myself and Charlie embarking on this trip, however we are staying with Charlie’s aunt, Sue, and uncle, Stuart, so I suppose they will probably feature in this Edition.
I’m looking forward very much to this trip, it will be highly cat based and involve an aeroplane and some trains. I am a fan of this long distance travelling lark, although I would be a rather poor Travelling Cat if I wasn't now, wouldn’t I?
We will be based in Edinburgh, where we will visit Edinburgh Zoo and hopefully see their wildcats – my less stripy, and less pink, cousins.
On this trip we will also visit the Highland Wildlife Park (it’s over two hours away, my longest journey by car, although compared to some of those European trains, not a problem, one hopes). Here, we will see many wondrous cats – I have been promised Pallas’ cats, lynxes, Amur tigers, snow leopards – and some other animals. If we’re lucky, we might even get to meet some important, high-up people involved in conservation of the beautiful, majestic, prowling, Critically Endangered Scottish wildcat. How few remain? We’ll find out in the next few days.
Anyway, it will not all be cat based (unfortunately), there’s also a trip planned over the mighty Forth Bridge to Perth, or perhaps Dundee, maybe here we will meet up with one of Charlie’s uni friends, maybe we won’t, oh, the suspense.
We will also probably visit Edinburgh Castle like all good tourists and I’m sure some other historical delights. Those good people who have read the Europe Edition, will fondly remember my well informed and mostly accurate history lessons.
Well, that seems to sum up what’s going on as I know so far. I’m all packed and ready to go. And I get to try a new airport, Stansted, this time, exciting stuff.
Until then, folks,