Occasionally, there is a media flurry concerning big cats in Britain, from the famous Beast of Bodmin Moor to pumas in Scotland. In Wales, these sightings have an older heritage and the Welsh Triads tell of Cath Palug, or ‘clawing cat’: a gigantic cat, born of the sow Hen Wen, that roamed Anglesey.
Whilst the existence of big cats in the UK remains debatable, there are certainly still wild cats in Britain. The Scottish wildcat is a subspecies of wildcat, and a small number reside in the Scottish Highlands. Looking much like a domestic tabby cat, they have several distinctions. They are slightly larger, with a longer tail and legs and a larger head. Their blunt, bushy tails are striped black. They are solitary, using scat and scent markers to mark their boundaries. Lacking the fireside comforts of their domestic cousins, the Scottish wildcat will shelter among tree hollows, rocks or abandoned animal dens. They are pure carnivores, hunting nocturnally for rodents, birds and rabbits. They are well adapted to their wild lifestyle: with razor-sharp claws, thick, dense coats, excellent senses of hearing and smell and superlative night vision.
Wild cats, which stalked the UK mainland until the late 1800’s, became rare after persecution and loss of their forest habitat. The remaining population are threatened further by hybridisation with domestic cats. It is hard to get a grasp on how many individuals remain, as it can be difficult to distinguish between feral, domestic and wild cats; estimates lie between 400 and 4000. Fascination for big cats in this country is evident from the 2000 or so sightings that are reported every year, but we need not look to the borders of our landscapes or imaginations to connect with feline wildness. We can look to our very own cat species that irrefutably belongs here—a wild spirit deep in the heart of our wildest woods.