CatSG

European wildcat

Felis silvestris 

IUCN Red List: NA

Weight: 3-8 kg
Body length: 45-80 cm
Tail length: ca. 30 cm
Longevity: 12-16
Litter size: 1-7 cubs

Description

The taxonomy of the wildcat is still debated as are the genetic differences between the wildcat subspecies and the domestic cat. It is discussed if the wildcat (F. silvestris) consists of five subspecies: the European wildcat (F. s. silvestris), 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) or if F. bieti, F. silvestris and F. lybica should be considered as three recently radiated phylogenetic species, with F. lybica including the subspecies  F. s. ornata and F. s. cafra. Moreover, it is not clear if the domestic cat, genetically very similar to the wildcat, should be considered as a separate species (F. catus) or as a subspecies of the wildcat (F. s. catus).

The revised taxonomy of the Felidae provisionally recognises the following species of the Genus Felis: Felis chaus (Jungle cat), Felis nigripes (Black-footed cat), Felis margarita (sand cat), Felis bieti (Chinese mountain cat), Felis silvestris (European wildcat), Felis lybica (African wildcat) and Felis catus (domestic cat). The European wildcat (Felis silvestris) includes thus only the forest cats of Europe. Although no recent morphological and molecular studies exist, based on current geographical isolation, two subspecies of the European wildcat are proposed:

  • Felis silvestris silvestris in Europe, including Scotland, Sicily and Crete and
  • Felis silvestris caucasica in the Caucasus and Turkey. 

Fossil records indicate that the European wildcat is the oldest form descended from Martelli’s cat (Felis silvestris lunensis) about 250,000 years ago. The only ancestor of the domestic cat is F. 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.

Other names

Languge/Country

Name

Armenian

vairi katu, antarayin katu

Bulgarian

diwa kotka

Corsican

ghjattu volpe

Czech

koka divoká

Dutch

Wilde kat

English

Wildcat

French

chat forestier, chat silvestre

Georgian

tkis cata

German

Wildkatze

Hungarian

vadmacska

Italian

gatto selvatico

Polish

bik

Portugese

gato bravo

Romanian

pisic slbtic

Russian

dikaja koschka

Slovakian

maka diva

Spanish

gato montés, gato silvestre

Turkey

yaban kedisi

Wallon (Belgium)

sauvadge tché

Status and Distribution

The wildcat (includingFelis silvestris&;and;Felis lybica) is considered as Least Concern in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The European wildcat is not yet seperately assessed in the IUCN Red List. It 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 Felis lybica 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.

Country

Estimated number of wildcats

Status

Trend and remarks

Belgium

expanding its range to the north and west

Bulgaria

considered relatively abundant

European Russia

thought to be large and relatively stable

France

may have expanded their range in the last 30 years

Germany

1,700-5,000

population maybe increasing

Greece

widespread in continental Greece

considered stable

Italy

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

Macedonia

widespread

Poland

100-450

classified as Endangered in Red Data Book

decreasing

Portugal

vulnerable at national level

in some areas decreasing

Romania

10,000 (not based on quantitative data)

Russia (European Part)

not quantified

thought to be large and relatively stable

Scotland

1,000-4,000

probably only few genetically pure individuals remain

Serbia

large populations along southern Danube

Slovakia

1,500

Slovenia

not more than 2,000

stable

Spain

vulnerable at national level

some parts increasing, in others decreasing

Switzerland

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. 

Extant distribution area of the wildcat (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015).
Extant distribution area of the European wildcat (IUCN Red List of Threatend Species 2015).

Habitat

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.

European wildcat in the Jura Mountains, Switzerland.
European wildcat in its typical habitat, Jura Mountains, Switzerland.

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. 

European wildcat with its kittens.
Female wildcat with its kitten.
European wildcats can climb quite well.
Wildcat lying in the snow.

Prey

European wildcat with a hunted mouse, Jura Mountains, Switzerland.

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. 

Main Threats

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. 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 wildcat is included in CITES Appendix II and the European wildcat 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.