Name: The Beast of Clashindarroch.
Appearance: Elusive, fearsome, magnificent.
That looks like a cat to me. It is a sort of cat – the biggest, wildest, meanest cat you ever saw.
In fact, that looks like my cat. Does he answer to Mr Whiskers? He answers to nothing and no one.
I haven’t seen him since Christmas. What happened to his elf costume? You couldn’t be more mistaken. This, my friend, is a wildcat.
You’ve never met Mr Whiskers. The Scottish wildcat is a unique island population of the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris), an entirely different subspecies from the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus).
It’s a tabby! It has fur like a tabby, but this specimen – captured with a baited camera trap in Clashindarroch forest in Aberdeenshire – is enormous, one of the largest wildcats ever recorded.
Really? How big is it? An estimated 4ft (1.2m) from nose to tail.
Huh. That is quite big, I suppose. You seem a trifle underwhelmed.
It’s not exactly a cheetah, is it? It’s just a slightly larger than a normal cat. Next door’s is at least that big. God knows what they’re feeding it. The Beast of Clashindarroch is a wild animal, not a pet. “This is nothing like a domestic cat, and you certainly wouldn’t want it sitting in your lap,” says Kev Bell, of the conservation project Wildcat Haven.
It’s just when you say “Beast of”, people expect something that could walk off with a sheep, like the Beast of Bodmin. Unlike the Beast of Bodmin, the European wildcat is real, albeit one of the rarest animals in the world. There are thought to be 35 in Scotland, of which 10 to 15 are in Cashindarroch.
Why so few? Fragmentation of habitat – they have a huge range – and hybridisation.
Hybridisation? Wildcats are known to crossbreed with domestic cats, which could lead to “genetic swamping” and eventual extinction.
You know what they say: “If it looks like a cat, walks like a cat, has sex with other cats …” But recent studies have found crossbreeding rates are lower than previously suspected. The drive to neuter feral domestics in the Highlands is more about stopping them eating the rabbits and rats that would otherwise feed wildcats.
Do say: “We must do everything in our power to protect this mildly impressive beast.”
Don’t say: “HAVE YOU SEEN ME? Plus-size tabby, bad-tempered, occasionally eats deer. Reward offered.”