Felis silvestris silvestris
IUCN Red List: Least Concern
|Body length:||45-80 cm|
|Tail length:||ca. 30 cm|
|Litter size:||1-7 cubs|
The European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) is a subspecies of the wildcat (Felis silvestris). Fossil records indicate that the European wildcat is the oldest form descended from Martelli’s cat (Felis silvestris lunensis) about 250,000 years ago. According to the latest phylogeographical analysis, there are four subspecies of wildcat, beside the European one: the African wildcat (F. s. lybica), the Asiatic wildcat (F. s. ornata), the Southern African wildcat (F. s. cafra) and the Chinese mountain cat (F. s. bieti). Another possible taxonomic division would be to consider F. bieti, F. silvestris and F. lybica as three recently radiated phylogenetic species and to include F. s. ornata and F. s. cafra in F. lybica. The taxonomy of the wildcat is still debated as are the genetic differences between the wildcat subspecies and the domestic cat. The domestic cat is genetically very similar to the wildcat and could be considered as a separate species (F. catus) or as a subspecies (F. s. catus). The only ancestor of the domestic cat is F. s. lybica. Hybridisation is common between European wildcats and domestic cats, as well as between African wildcats and domestic cats.
The European wildcat is of the size of a large domestic cat. It has a broad head and wide set ears. The coat of the European wildcat is thick and long in winter, grey-brown with a well-defined, individual pattern of black stripes on the head, neck, limbs, and a distinct dorsal line. The European wildcat has a bushy, blunt-ending tail with several black rings and a black tip. Some individuals have a white spot on the throat. In the winter coat the European wildcat looks rather compact and short-legged, although this cat has in reality longer legs than most domestic cats. Melanistic individuals have never been recorded in Europe.
vairi katu, antarayin katu
chat forestier, chat silvestre
gato montés, gato silvestre
Status and Distribution
The European wildcat is classified as Least Concern in the IUCN Red List but is considered threatened at the national level in many range states. Between late 1700 to mid-1900, European wildcat populations declined considerably and locally the species was extirpated. In the Netherlands it disappeared completely, as well as in Austria and probably in the Czech Republic. Several countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Scotland, Slovakia and Switzerland) were re-colonized by the European wildcat between 1920 and 1940. Recently, there has been evidence of wildcat presence in some regions of Austria and the Czech Republic. In the United Kingdom, the wildcat was nearly extinct at the time of the First World War. The small population that had survived in the northwest of Scotland re-colonized most of Scotland, but not England. The only Mediterranean island population of European wildcats is found on Sicily; cats occurring on other islands (Sardinia, Corsica, and Crete) are genetically F.s. lybica and probably ancient feral domestic cats.
In some parts of the European wildcat distribution range, probably only few genetically pure individuals remain due to hybridisation with domestic cats. In Scotland, it is estimated that 88% of cats found in the wild may be hybrids or feral cats. In Hungary and Italy, the proportion of hybrids is estimated to be 25-31% and 8% respectively. Hybrids have also been detected in Belgium, Portugal, Germany and Switzerland. Populations of European wildcats in Eastern Europe are generally considered to be genetically relatively pure. In several range countries, changes and trends in population size and distribution are not well documented and only rough estimates exist. European wildcat populations are often fragmented and decreasing. However, in Germany, populations have been expanding in the last years.
Estimated number of wildcats
Trend and remarks
expanding its range to the north and west
considered relatively abundant
thought to be large and relatively stable
may have expanded their range in the last 30 years
population maybe increasing
widespread in continental Greece
On Sicily density is estimated at 0.28-0.93 individuals/100 km² based on camera trapping and at 1.36 individuals/100 km² based on DNA analysis
classified as Endangered in Red Data Book
vulnerable at national level
in some areas decreasing
10,000 (not based on quantitative data)
Russia (European Part)
thought to be large and relatively stable
probably only few genetically pure individuals remain
large populations along southern Danube
not more than 2,000
vulnerable at national level
some parts increasing, in others decreasing
about 160-930 in the Swiss Jura region
since 1970 they have expanded their range to the South-West and East of the Jura
The wildcat (Felis silvestris) has a very wide distribution, found throughout most of Africa, Europe, southwest and central Asia into India, China, and Mongolia. The European wildcat inhabits parts of Europe and parts of adjoining Russia into central Asia. Formerly the European wildcat was widely distributed in Europe and only absent from Fennoscandia.
The European wildcat is primarily associated with forest habitat and most abundant in broad-leaved or mixed forests. However, it also inhabits grassland and steppe habitats and can be found in the Mediterranean maquis scrubland, riparian forest, marsh boundaries and along sea coasts or in very wet swampy areas. The European wildcat generally avoids areas of intensive cultivation and of high human densities or human activity. In the Pyrenees it is found up to 2,250 m elevation and also occurs in the Swiss Jura mountains.
Ecology and Behaviour
European wildcats are considered solitary, mostly nocturnal and territorial predators. In areas with little human activity, wildcats are often active also during the day, with activity peaks at dawn and dusk. European wildcats in a study from western Scotland travelled over 10 km per night to forage on open ground and rested by day in thickets or young forestry plantations. For resting sites the European wildcat prefers shelter structures near forest edges. Home ranges of the European wildcat in Scotland were 1-2 km² for females while home ranges in Hungary were 1.5-8.7 km². In north-eastern France home ranges of males were larger than the ones of females and overlapped with the ranges of 3-5 females. Home range overlap between individuals of the same sex was low.
Not much is known about the social behaviour of the wildcat. There is evidence that individuals are in contact either by olfactory or vocal or sometimes direct communication with at least their direct neighbours. The European wildcat uses scent marks (urine spraying in both sexes and uncovered faeces) for communication. Vocal communication occurs throughout the year, but most frequently in the breeding season. The wildcat hunts almost exclusively on the ground, although it is an excellent climber, and usually stalks its prey followed by a quick attack.
The mating season is in late winter: January- March. Most births take place in April and May. Females can only breed twice in one year under exceptional circumstances such as when the first litter is lost. The estrus cycle lasts for 1-6 days when males are present and the gestation for 64-71 days, on average 68 days. Age at independence can vary from 5-10 months and sexual maturity is reached by females at 6.5-11 months and for males at 9-10 months. Kittens start to eat solid food when they are one month old, are weaned at the age of 3.5–4.5 months, and learn to hunt progressively between 3-5 months of age.
The staple diet of the European wildcat are rodents such as rats, mice and voles with no special species preference. In areas where rabbits occur such as central Spain or parts of Scotland, they can be the major prey of the European wildcat. The European wildcat also takes occasionally insectivores, birds, insects, frogs, lizards, hares and poultry or even smaller carnivores such as martens, weasels and polecats. European wildcats also scavenge food. The diet of the European wildcat shows only minor seasonal variations with rodents or rabbits as the major prey item throughout the year.
One of the main threats to the European wildcat is considered to be hybridisation with domestic cats which can lead to the loss of genetic variation or to the loss of specific adaptations. Such hybrids are found almost throughout its entire range and there may be very few genetically pure European wildcat populations remaining. However, the impact of hybridisation is still not known and is being debated; if F. silvestris is considered a polytypic species the importance of hybridisation is diminished but it is increased if the domestic cat is considered a separate species. Hybrids between wildcats and domestic cats can look very similar to the wildcat which makes it difficult to assess the status of the European wildcat.
Disease transmission from domestic cats and competition with feral cats for food are other potential threats but were until now never documented. Human-caused mortality can be very high. Many wildcats get killed on roads or as by-catch in control measures for other carnivores. Rodenticides may also threat wildcat populations. In Scotland where it is still considered a pest the wildcat is still illegally persecuted.
In the 18th and through the mid-20th centuries habitat loss and fragmentation as well as direct persecution led to high declines of European wildcats in Europe and Russia. Although the European wildcat can adapt to cultivated landscapes to a limited degree, habitat loss and fragmentation can still be a problem. In some areas prey base reductions further threaten the wildcat. The risk of hybridisation with domestic cats also increases in cultivated landscapes.
Conservation Efforts and Protection Status
The European wildcat is included in CITES Appendix II and listed in the EU Habitats and Species Directive Annex IV and the Bern Convention Appendix II. It is fully protected over most of its range under national legislation. Hunting is prohibited in Armenia, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Moldavia, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, and Ukraine and regulated in Azerbaijan, Romania and Slovakia. It has no legal protection outside reserve areas in Bulgaria, Georgia and Romania. No information is available for Albania, Croatia and Slovenia.
The inclusion of the European wildcat into the Bern Convention and the European Habitat Directives helped the species to recover in some parts of Europe after having been highly reduced in many areas and even extirpated in others. The European wildcat re-colonized many countries between 1930 and 1940.
The most urgent conservation need is to identify genetically pure wildcats and to prohibit hybridisation. However, this task is difficult as wildcats cannot be distinguished easily from domestic cats or hybrids. Further research on hybridisation levels may warrant a reassessment of the wildcat as a threatened species due to population declines of genetically pure wildcats. In Europe, progress has been made towards defining the felid “units of conservation”, combining studies of morphology and genetics to clarify the relationship between wildcats and domestic cats. Established morphological criteria and genetic markers should help to more easily distinguish hybrids from pure wildcats.
It is also important to agree on a clear taxonomy of the wildcat: current legislation to protect the wildcat can be only effective if the wildcat is seen as a separate species from the domestic cat. There is still a lack of information regarding the current status of the European wildcat and its population trends in many parts of its distribution range.