A study by Scottish Natural Heritage, now at a draft report stage, has reached the startling conclusion that it is impossible to differentiate between Scottish Wildcats, (Felis silvestris) and domestic cats on the basis of markings, skull size or even genetic testing. The research was carried out at the request of the Scottish Office, following a court case in 1990 in which a gamekeeper was accused of killing three Scottish wildcats, protected under the 1981 Wildlife And Countryside Act. The case had to be dropped because no expert witness could verify that the animals were in fact wildcats.
The Scottish Wildcat was defined in 1907 by the British Museum; the chosen type specimen being an animal killed in Drumnadrochit in 1904. From this point the 'species' evolved by unnatural selection - gamekeepers supplying Wildcats to museums and zoos were payed for only the ones which conformed to the type specimen. The SNH research found that the marking theories of the Natural History Museum did not stand up to rigorous examination; a tabby, striped coat, and bushy tail with six distinct bands are just as likely to be found on a domestic tabby, or feral cat.
Genetic testing established distinct groups of larger cats in various parts of the Highlands. While most of the animals in these groups resemble the traditional wildcat, some have widely variable markings, including large patches of white or black. David Balharry of SNH states, "there is a type of cat that the environment is selecting in some areas whether that population is a remnant of the original Scottish Wildcat, I dont know." The team have applied for funding for further research, including comparing the DNA from bones of ancient cats from the Innchnadamph Caves with that of modern cats. Research to date leaves the true Scottish Wildcat, (if it exists) with no legal protection, and a lot of museums displaying animals which may well be feral domestic cats.
© The Scotsman: 15 th August, 1994.
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