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Wild Life in the West Highlands

THE Felidae, or Cats proper, comprise the most numerous group of the family of Carnivora, and are to be found well-nigh all over the world excepting the Arctic regions and Australasia; but in Europe we have, with a solitary exception, only one indigenous species, the Wild Cat, formerly designated Felis catus, but according to the latest authorities better described scientifically as F. sylvestris; the Scottish having been recently further distinguished from the Continental form as F. sylvestris grampia. Only in Sardinia is an exception to be found, where a local representative of the Egyptian cat occurs, described as F. ocreata sarda. Singularly enough, the wild cat has never been found in Ireland.

This is, perhaps, the most interesting of the remaining feral inhabitants of our Scottish Highlands, to which it is to-day restricted, although at one time doubtless to be found throughout Great Britain. In its immensely powerful muscular development, resembling in this its congeners the great cats of warmer climates, its untameable ferocity and love for the solitude of remote and inaccessible fastnesses, it recalls the days when the Caledonian forests held other and yet more powerful beasts of `ravin.'

In the latter half of the last century there appeared to be much reason to believe that this species was rapidly approaching extinction. So bloodthirsty and formidable an animal had necessarily many enemies. Young red-deer calves, fawns of roe-deer, hares, rabbits, sickly lambs, game and other birds of every sort and their young-even domestic poultry-all were laid under tribute as occasion served. The rapid rise and increase of sheep farming throughout the Highlands, and the enhanced values of all sporting property brought about by the greater travelling facilities which served to make the waste places of Scotland more and more the play ground of the wealthy Southron, brought about many a change ; and the wild cat suffered unremitting persecution along with the marten, the polecat, the eagles, the osprey and yet others of our northern fauna - some now extinct, some still hovering on the verge. It was even maintained by some - and may possibly even yet be held-that the wild cat as a pure and unmixed species had already ceased to exist ; that those still here and there to be found were no longer the legitimate descendants of the original indigenous species, but were only mongrels ; the pure strain having been already lost by admixture with the straying domestic cat. To-day, however, those best informed maintain that absolutely pure-bred and undoubted descendants of our original wild cat still exist in Scotland, and that, too, in increasing numbers.

The wild cat was widely distributed over the middle and southern districts of Europe, although nowadays in many parts exterminated by the advance of population and agriculture, and therefore restricted to-day to the wilder and less accessible regions; and is, as already stated, with one exception, the sole representative of the cats proper native to this Continent. Beyond our own country it is to be found, if in ever-diminishing numbers, in France and Germany, Poland and Russia, throughout Southern Europe and Turkey to the Caucasus; but, it is believed, not to the east of the Urals. Singularly enough, it is quite unknown in Scandinavia; and this is noticeable from the point of view of scientific nomenclature. As has been well pointed out by Mr. R. J. Pocock, Superintendent of the Zoological Society's Gardens, one of our best authorities on this species and its congeners, the specific name catus was given by Linnaeus, who must in doing so have meant the domestic cat, the only species which he knew, unless by hearsay; and it is quite evident that he took it for granted that the wild and domestic cat were one and the same animal. Since his day most writers seem to have followed him in this. But here the large and doubtful question of the origin of our domestic cat at once meets us; and this being admittedly unsettled, it seems that these modern writers are well advised who retain the designation catus for one of the house-cats to which Linnaeus first applied it, and accept sylvestris to distinguish the wild cat.

Linnaeus' description of the stripes of catus are not applicable to the wild cat, but is clearly that of the 'blotched' tabby form ; and this is a strong argument for the rejection of catus for the former.

It is certainly true that the wild and domestic cats stand in very close relationship. Blasius points out certain small differences in the skulls of the two forms by which they may be separated, if with difficulty ; but the two races interbreed freely, and unquestionably mongrels may frequently occur. Those, however, who have made a study of the subject and are familiar with the true wild cat can hardly fail to distinguish at once the pure from those of mixed descent. Perhaps the most usual point of difference adverted to in discussion or writings on the subject is that of the tail, which is averred to be thicker at the tip than the more pointed tail of the house-cat ; but this is really only a matter of hair, the skeleton of the tail being in both cases much alike, as far as taper is concerned. It has been pointed out by Mr. Pocock that there is an exact parallel in the case of the tigers of India and Mongolia respectively ; where in the short-haired Indian tiger the tail is tapered, but in the long-haired northern individual is thick at the point, - just as in the wild cat and for the same reason, the greater length and thickness of the hair covering it. An analogous instance occurs in the case of the extraordinarily thick fur of the cats kept in the Pittsburg refrigerators and on the Island of St. Paul, - as compared with the opposite extreme of shortness of hair in the cats of East Africa. It seems to follow that length or thickness of fur cannot be held to be of much value in a question of systematic discrimination.

In the patterns, however, shown in the stripes or spots and blotches, to be found on all cats not self-coloured, careful investigation has proved that these are found to be, in practically all cases, divisible into two categories, the `striped' and the `blotched'; and it is by continuing his investigations on these lines that Mr. Pocock comes to the conclusions which are to be found in his interesting paper in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society, 1907. In comparing the European wild cat (sylvestris) and the Egyptian (ocreata) the resemblances are so many and the distinctions so few that it seems to be questionable whether they can be held to be other than types of the same species differentiated, in some degree, by varying climate and other surroundings; and it is also to be remembered that their natural areas meet, so that the two may well have interbred. It is impossible here to reproduce all the arguments and deductions - many of them new, and all of them as interesting as able, - to be found in Mr. Pocock's paper; but the result arrived at in the question of the origin of the domestic cat may probably be fairly summarised to this effect, viz. that it is impossible to decide positively; but the striped form so clearly resembles both the African and European wild cat that in all probability these are, in greater or lesser proportion, the progenitors of this form; while the blotched type cannot be so accounted for ; and its origin, for the present at least, must remain undecided.

To return to the wild cat in our own land, we have proof of its former wider distribution in the number of place-names associated with it, not in the Highlands only but also in the Lowlands. In a Fauna of Scotland, 188o, by the late E. R. Alston, F.L.S., it is stated : 'Once generally distributed all over the mainland, the Wild Cat has been totally extirpated in the Lowlands and in many parts of the Highlands. It is still to be found, however, in the wilder districts of most of the 'Northern Counties, especially in the deer-forests, where it is left comparatively undisturbed. Till of late years its Southern outpost was the mountainous country around Loch Lomond, whence there are specimens in the Glasgow University Museum, but it is now extinct in that neighbourhood, and I believe that none now exist south of the Northern districts of Argyll and Perthshire. There appears to be no evidence that the wild cat was ever found in any of the Islands, Pennant's statement that it was a native of Arran being probably erroneous.'

To-day the localities where it is still to be found are rather to be described as the western and north-western districts of the Highlands. The principal area of distribution extends from Northern Argyll through Moydart and Knoydart up to Northern Inverness-shire, in all suitable localities west of the Caledonian Canal and in the vicinity of the Canal itself. Steep craggy hill-sides, deep gloomy glens shaggy with tall heather and bracken, natural fir and birch-woods strewn with cairns, fallen boulders and ancient tree-trunks,-such are the places where they take up their abode ; and so retiring and nocturnal are they in their habits that were it not for tell-tale traces in the winter snow, often for long they would remain unsuspected.

The wild cat has been known to breed in confinement. In Fauna of the North- West Highlands and Skye, Mr. J. A. Harvie-Brown gives this extract from a letter from Mr. Alfred Heneage Cocks, dated January 29th, 1887: `A kitten of the true Wild Cat, a female, about 2j months old, was sent to me from Kinlochewe, W. Ross-shire, on July 28th, arriving here, Great Marlow, Bucks, on 31st, 1873, and it bred four years with a male from Inverness; July 13th, 1875, 3; May 21st, 1876, 2; May 29th, 1877, 3; May 23rd, 1878, 2 kittens. Gestation was 68 days, and the kittens at birth about double the size of tame ones.' Mr. Pocock has kindly sent to the writer an account of the breeding in the Zoological Society's Gardens, London, of a male Scottish wild cat with an Egyptian cat (Felis ocreata). Particulars of this interesting experiment were given, with excellent photographs, in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society, 1907. The striking configuration of the markings of the surviving kitten ` confirmed Mr. Pocock's opinion that the striped-tabby Domestic Cat of Europe was descended from the European and African Wild Cats (Felis sylvestris and Felis ocreata).'

That our wild cat will interbreed with the domestic cat has always been taken for granted, but is a positively ascertained fact; as one gentleman at least, Mr. A. H. Cocks, has succeeded several times in obtaining the cross.

In proof that the wild cat is, up to the present day at least, by no means so near extinction as has sometimes been assumed, it may be noted that living specimens are offered to the Zoological Society every winter; and within a few weeks in 1909 no less than three were reported as killed in one West Highland district; the latest is said to have measured 40 inches in length, and to have weighed 14 lbs. Bell gives the length of the average male as being: head and body, 1 foot 10 inches, tail fully 11 inches - total, 33 inches; but states that the dimensions vary greatly in individuals, as might be expected. The female is the smaller of the two.

It would be a sad loss to our Scottish fauna if this animal, in many respects the most interesting of our remaining wild inhabitants, were to be exterminated; and should those in a position to afford protection to it in its few remaining haunts neglect to do so, it is all the more likely that this may result, as a tempting price is always forthcoming for good specimens, dead or alive. If the schemes for the re-afforestation of Scotland, of which to-day we hear so much, should take substantial form in the near future, it may afford the best hope that such a consummation may yet be averted.

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