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Profile

Characteristics

Wildcat (Felis silvestris)

A wildcat stands on the meadow and looks directly into the camera.
European wildcat. © Laurent Geslin
  • Appearance (DE, FR): Yellowish-grey fur, usually with brown-black washed stripes, 4-5 distinct neck stripes and one shoulder stripe on each side, as well as a dorsal stripe that stops at the beginning of the tail. Rather bushy tail (27–35 cm), with distinct black rings and a blunt, black end.
  • Size: Slightly larger than the domestic cat, body length 43–65 cm.
  • Weight: adult males up to 7 kg, females up to 5 kg.
  • Life expectancy: up to 10 years in the wild.

Status and threats

Legal status:

Red List of Endangered species:

1Until recently, the wildcats in Europe, Africa and Asia were regarded as one species with different subspecies. Kitchener et al. 2017 reviewed the taxonomy of all wild cat species. Now, the European wildcat is regarded as a separate species. The global assessment (as well as the separate one for Europe) was still based on the old taxonomy and should be replaced as soon as possible.

A wildcat mating with a domestic cat. © Laurent Geslin

One possible threat to the wildcat is the omnipresent domestic cat. The latter is not a descendant from the European wildcat, but from the African wildcat (Felis lybica). The domestic cat achieved a wide distribution over central Europe from approx. 900 AD onwards and is nowadays among the most popular and most widespread domestic animals. Mating between a domestic cat and a wildcat can produce fertile young – so-called hybrids. For a species with only a small remaining population size and/or fragmented populations, hybridisation can become a serious threat by the eradication of the genetic wild form. To what degree this threat exists for the European wildcat is currently the subject of several studies. A multi-year study in Germany collected several thousand hair samples. The degree of hybridisation was found to be around 3%. Meanwhile in Scotland, the wildcat is largely regarded as genetically extinct as a result of hybridisation with domestic cats (Review of the conservation Status of the wildcat in Scotland). It is still unclear which factors promote or prevent hybridisation. This question is also subject of KORA’s wildcat project.

Domestic cats pose an additional threat by transmitting diseases to wildcats. Moreover, habitat fragmentation, habitat degradation (loss of diverse and structurally rich habitats) and traffic collisions also threaten the European wildcat.

Spatial & Social structure

A wildcat marks a lurestick installed by KORA. © KORA

Wildcats prefer habitats rich in cover and structures such as mixed deciduous forests and alluvial forests. If there is a sufficient availability of cover and prey, e.g. provided by a variety of small scale structures, wildcats may also inhabit more open landscapes without direct access to forests.

The wildcat lives in solitude and holds a territory, the size of which depends on the availability of resources such as prey and resting areas, but may also change seasonally. Generally, female wildcats have a significantly smaller home range than males. Mean values of 2–5 km² for females and up to 12 km² for males have been estimated.

Wildcats mark their home ranges by leaving scent marks through urine spraying, and defend it against neighbouring animals. During the mating season, the male’s home range reaches its maximum size. The actively used home range of the female is most restricted during the time when they raise their young.

Reproduction

The mating season occurs from January to March. The increased activity during this period, especially for the male, leads to a significant loss of weight. Wildcats have only one litter per year. After a gestation period of 68 days, the female gives birth to 1–6 (on average 3–4) blind and hairy young between late March and early June. The birth place is in a safe, dry, protected den, under roots, in a tree hollow or in an abandoned fox den. The female takes care of the young alone. They are nursed for 3–4 months, but after 1 month they already eat meat brought by the mother. Soon, the mother takes the young to hunt. At 5 to 6 months, the young are independent and leave their mother in autumn. While looking for their own territory, many young wildcats die because of starvation or traffic accidents. At 10 months, the wildcat is sexually mature. If it manages to find a territory, it may reproduce in the second year of life.

Diet

Small mammals play a central role in the diet of wildcats. Camera trap picture, Jura, 2016. © KORA

The European wildcat’s diet varies regionally. It consists mainly of small mammals and, if available, wild rabbits. Sometimes it hunts birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and insects, expanding its spectrum of regional and seasonal food. In Switzerland, 90% of the hunted animals are mice and more particularly voles. As a primarily crepuscular predator, the wildcat has excellent sensory organs. Its sharp retractable claws allow it to seize its prey. Depending on the size of the prey, it kills by biting the throat or crushing the skull. In the stomach of wildcats found dead, great quantities of food were found: Up to 24 prey animals for a total weight of 452 g.

History in Switzerland

Historically, the wild cat was widespread on the Plateau and the Jura. In the late 18th century it had almost disappeared: The wildcat “belongs (… ) to the most harmful predators of our country” and “hunters have every reason to go after this sinister guest in every possible manner” are two citations from the hunting literature. This attitude towards wildcats led to populations collapse. Since 1962, the wildcat is protected in Switzerland. It is not possible to know if it was completely eradicated in Switzerland at some point. There have been some re-introductions, but only with few animals. The return of the wildcat to Switzerland is probably owed to the immigration of animals from the French Jura, particularly from Sundgau and Burgundy.

Humans and wildcat

The wildcat is a very discreet forest dweller and is barely noticed by humans. It is rarely in conflict with them, except when it happens to grab a chicken. As a native wildlife animal, the wildcat is protected since 1962 and hunting or capturing is strictly prohibited.

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