The Wildcat

Molly McGinnis

May, 2004 issue of Signals from TARSUS

Felis sylvestris sylvestris Wildcat (All the Lake books)

Where is the wildcat of Wildcat Island? The island isn't shaped like a wildcat, and there's no story about a wildcat or a cat gone wild (a feral cat) in any of the books. But was there once a wildcat or a feral cat on a Lake island? Did AR have thoughts of a real wildcat when he named the island? One of Ransome's favorite books was Thorstein of the Mere, where there is a fight between the hero and a wildcat on an island in a lake. I like the idea of a wildcat being a secret symbol inspiring the author to keep on!

There is a genuine wild cat, the European Wildcat (Felis sylvestris sylvestris), but not in England – the last English wildcat was shot in Northumberland in 1849, and wildcats had been extinct in the south since the 1500's. (Californians take note: yours is the only state in the union which has an extinct animal for its totem so don't get uppity! The last Grizzly bear ever seen in California was shot in 1927; the last wild passenger pigeon for forever was shot in Ohio in 1900.) A very few wildcats remain in Scotland.

And what is a "wildcat"? There are truly wild cats all over Europe, the drier parts of Africa, and east into the dry parts of India and Central Asia. They were originally named Felis sylvestris, and then as more became known about wildcats the species was divided into three and then many "subspecies". The ancestor of our pets (Felix catus) was Felis sylvestris Libica, found in dry habitats all over Africa (which includes Arabia – "scientifically", as Dick might say, Sinbad was a very good name for the Ship's Kitten!). All the subspecies can interbreed, but generally don't – for one thing, the groups are widely separated. Interbreeding between subspecies generally happens when territories that were separated become joined again. The wildcat is protected in many places but it's not out of danger, especially the European group (which includes Scotland's few), because it can't adapt to living near humans. And the domestic cat may be interbreeding with true wildcats, diluting the gene pools of the wild kinds.

The European group of wildcats is called the Sylvestris group and the British and European wildcats are called Felis sylvestris sylvestris. (A subspecies has an extra Latin name.) Besides Felix libica there is the "Indian" group which also lives in desert areas; its range is India, extending well into the far East.

The European Wildcat is the most untameable, the most secretive, and the least tolerant of humans of all the three groups, and it is also the most heavily furred and the largest – which is what biologists expect of northern representatives of a species. It can grow to 17 lb. (8kg), bigger than most housecats. F. s. sylvestris has the smallest range of the three groups, being found only in the northern parts of Western Europe, except Scandinavia, and in a tiny area in Scotland. The Scottish wildcat has earned its own name, Felis sylvestris grampia, and a place on the Red List (note for Americans: a Red List species is like a US "Endangered" species), though recently there are some grumbles about it not being a "pure" enough wildcat to be either named or listed. (A listed species is one given "protective status" on one of the American or International Lists) because of supposed interbreeding with domestic cats. Large built-up areas surround F. s. grampia's territory and it is barely holding its own.

The European Wildcat is gray and black tabby striped just like two of my pets, but the coat is very thick (thicker yet in winter) and the tail fur is even thicker so that the tail looks blunt or rounded at the end. (One of my pet cats has a tail like that too – she uses it for a nose warmer in cold weather.) A Wildcat would look bigger than a domestic cat of the same size because of the heavy fur. European Wildcats live in forests (that's what "sylvestris" means) but the African and Indian Wildcats are desert and plains animals. The European Wildcat survives even in very swampy forests, going from tree to tree, and wildcats could undoubtedly swim to Wildcat Island – in the days when there were any. Wildcats prey on rodents and rabbits (the Grampian wildcat is a rabbit/hare specialist) and will take other small creatures – insects, reptiles, birds, frogs, birds' eggs, and the like. The European Wildcat even takes carrion, which is rather untypical of the cat family. (I have expanded the usual food lists, from observing what our own farm pets and the semi-wild visitors take.) Wildcats will cache their food – carry it off and hide it, something not many felids do. (Americans: This is typical of the American Mountain Lion also.)

I can't find reports of any effort to re-establish the Wildcat in England. There are accounts of sightings of "wildcats" but so far these have turned out to be feral cats or zoo escapees. A few domestic cats (Felis catus, worldwide distribution) are able to survive in the wild and for the most part reclaim the feeding niches of small predators made extinct by humans. When they're introduced where animals evolved without small predators (for instance, some islands) they make their own niche and can be a threat to the prey populations. In Britain, both domestic and feral cats are maligned as predators on birds, but this seems to me to overlook the fact that British birds evolved with small carnivores and omnivores which feed on birds and their eggs. These – including the true Wildcat – have been systematically eliminated over the last several hundred years and I think it likely that domestic cats have simply replaced lost predators.

A good website to check for Wildcat information is: For another interesting discussion check:>.

Does this answer the question, "Where are the Wildcats of Wildcat Island?" Not exactly! See "The Parley" (S&A) and here's a clue:

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