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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Swanson

Tracking the Highland Tiger: In Search of Scottish Wildcats

Marianne Taylor calls us to action to save one of Scotland’s most iconic species as it sits on the edge of extinction in this informative and heartfelt book.

You don’t have to look far to find the cultural impact of the Scottish wildcat in Britain – the myth built around these felines portray them as the epitome of independence, isolation, and the untameable, earned through their reputation of scarcity and ferocity despite their small stature.

However, the history and relationship between humanity and the Scottish wildcat is bloody and turbulent, fraught with mass hunting and habitat destruction.

Consequently, Britain’s unique species could face extinction.

Surveys spanning from 2010 to 2013 show 100-300 wildcats remain in Scotland, with Wildcat Haven suggesting there are only 35 left in the wild.

Further sources depict the situation as even more dire. In 2018, a report carried out by the IUCN in partnership with conservation programmes declared ‘the wildcat population in Scotland to be no longer viable’.

It is easy to fall to pessimism when looking at these accounts, with a growing fear that it may already be too late for Scotland’s beloved felines. However, Marianne Taylor’s Tracking the Highland Tiger: In Search of Scottish Wildcats successfully counters this bleak outlook without sugar-coating the situation.

I thoroughly believe in the power of education when it comes to tackling eco-anxiety and incorporating green habits. The truth may be a bitter pill to swallow, but understanding the wider picture is what allows room for real optimism to grow and flourish.

Taylor herself is an accomplished freelance writer with plenty of knowledge under her belt; having worked alongside the RSPB and published plenty of educational material regarding wildlife, readers are assured that the information she provides will be both accurate and engaging.

Tracking the Highland Tiger: In Search of Scottish Wildcats lives up to it’s title. Taylor tracks the evolutionary and historical journey of the Scottish wildcat to give us a concise overview, pointing out different fascinating details along the way.

I was shocked to discover that Scottish wildcats are not officially recognised as their own subgroup – even to this day – but rather as part of the European wildcat family (Felis silvestris) despite the variations between the two brought on by thousands of years of separation.

It’s information like this that helps combat the ‘just another cat’ mentality that often rears its ugly head in arguments against their conservation. Despite looking like a typical domesticated tabby, the Scottish wildcat is biologically and culturally unique to Britain.

The name itself is actually quite misleading, as the wildcat used to be much more widespread across the UK before a bloody history with humanity pushed them to the most remote locations in Scotland for survival.

The reader is also discouraged from falling into the trap of romanticising the wildcats, a dangerous practice that risks concealing their precarious reality on the brink of extinction.

The depiction of their evolutionary journey explains their rarity and ferocious territorial attitudes, grounding them whilst still inspiring intrigue.

Taylor’s account of witnessing a very affectionate wildcat kitten with her handler stuck in my mind since reading it, as it went against every story of their untameable nature I’d heard of since I was a child. It made me re-evaluate how we as a species interact with the feline world.

Following this, tucked away between the chapters are Taylor’s own personal accounts of travelling across Scotland in search of the wildcat – aptly titled ‘Trips’ in ascending order – detailing beautiful scenes of wildlife and her own reflections over the course of her journey.

Taylor’s passion for nature really shines through in these trips to an infectious degree. I couldn’t help but join her in marvelling at the deceptive complexity of Scottish pines as they plays hosts to their own mini ecosystem.

However, these trips are also central to my criticisms of the book, stemming from Taylor’s language surrounding Scottish wildcats. After some reflection, I realised my frustration came from a feeling of hypocrisy from the author.

Throughout the book, there is an emphasis on finding a ‘pure’ wildcat that isn’t ‘polluted’ by the domestic gene pool. Such sentiments are enough to get alarm bells ringing, especially when she doesn’t elaborate on the issues surrounding crossbreeding and the impact of domesticated/feral cats on wildcats until much later.

A huge point of contention within wildcat conservation regards genetics; the majority of – if not all – Scottish wildcats in captivity contain some domestic genes, and breeding programs require complicated processes to determine which subjects have enough of a degree of genetic separation to qualify them for conservation.

The RZSS, in a collaborative report with Scottish Wildcat Action, states ‘the distribution of scores [of captive wildcats] does not differentiate very significantly from that of the historical cats’, meaning that these wildcats, for all intents and purposes, are still wildcats, even with some domestic genes peppered in.

Taylor is seemingly content with this fact until it affects their appearance. This is especially highlighted in a frustrating moment during her final trip, where she describes finally seeing a Scottish wildcat outside captivity but swiftly discounts it as ‘not a real wildcat’ due to a single white paw.

The RZSS report ‘concludes that very few Scottish wildcats living in the wild meet the genetic or physical standards used to tell the difference between a wildcat and a hybrid’.

That cat she saw may be more wildcat than most in captivity, but is it not worth saving just because it has a white paw, and therefore not the right aesthetic?

Even without the context, she herself acknowledges the uncomfortable association with genetic purity and segregation in conservation to ‘of our own species, [which] is littered with shameful examples.’ And yet she never acknowledges this in regards to her own perceptions.

Even with wildcats in captivity, this mindset carries over when these cats do not live up to her perception, with Taylor dissatisfied when one feline named Hamish has a white star on his chest.

While it may be due to mourning the wildcat’s perilous status, it reads more as a sense of elitism when placed into context and emotive words such as ‘polluted’ are employed.

Despite stating it is necessary to let go of our contentions and stigmas regarding genetic purity for the sake of saving their species, there is never a moment where I as a reader feel Taylor herself has let go of the romanticised image of the ‘pure’ Scottish wildcat.

Regardless of my criticism, I strongly recommend reading this book if you have an interest in Scottish wildcats. It is very thoroughly researched and engagingly written, making learning about the wildcats accessible without getting too bogged down in the science or pessimism of the situation.

Independent research and reflection are strongly encouraged by this book. I ended up looking more into wildcats and their current conservation efforts, the major charities/organisations at play, and how I could potentially get involved, All because of this book.

I also found myself strongly agreeing with Taylor on a certain sentiment; our actions are the reasons why the Scottish wildcats are endangered and face a set of unique problems not often found within other threatened cases.

Out of honour to their heritage, their current descendants, and righting our own wrongs, we are obligated to do all we can to protect what remains of this unique mammal family.

The topics of conservation and reintroduction schemes are always complex, especially regarding the wildcats of Scotland. We still have plenty of groundwork to do before we can even begin rewilding, and as such there are plenty of ways you can get involved, from donating to even simply learning more about them.

The current Scottish wildcat situation is as bleak as it is dire, but Tracking the Highland Tiger also shows there is hope. If you want to take a step into the world of Scottish wildcats, or even have the smallest interest in the cat kingdom, Tracking the Highland Tiger: In Search of Scottish Wildcats will grant you an excellent overview of these deceptively unique felines, and point you in the right direction of finding out how you can help save them in their darkest hour.

By Amanda Swanson ©


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