Fact check ‘the last wildcat in England was shot in 1835’

Wildcat in Scotland
Wildcat in Scotland. This is a brilliant image. It is fictional. It was created by AI. Thank you. It was created to my order and under my instructions.
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RELATED: Information about the hybridisation of the Scottish wildcat

There was a story on the Internet that the last wildcat in England was shot in 1835. I repeated it on this website. But the information seems very doubtful. There appears to be no hard evidence of it.

I have conducted quite a thorough search on this and the only certain information about the last sighting of a European wildcat in England is that it occurred in 1849. We don’t have a certain location for that sighting.

Further, it is believed (more uncertainty) that the European wildcat was extinct in England by the 1860s.

There is also some uncertainty as to whether the wildcat in England was hunted by sport hunters. Some reports say that hunting the species was part of a predator control program aimed at protecting game animals and perhaps livestock.

Although there is no clear consensus on the Internet on whether wildcats in England were hunted as pests. There may have been conflict between the wildcat and farmers and gamekeepers leading to some persecution but there is no widespread historical record of wildcats being actively hunted as pests in England.

However, the best book on the wild cats, by Mel and Fiona Sunquist titled Wild Cats Of the World states that, “Throughout much of the European Wildcat’s range, the species has long been thought of as vermin. Wildcats have been trapped as predators, hunted for their fur, and displaced from agriculture by land clearance schemes. Historically gamekeepers throughout Europe have put a great deal of effort into exterminating these cats because they are thought to be major predators of pheasant, grouse and rabbits. Wildcats are also caught in traps set cats wolves and foxes.”

If this occurred in England it would have contributed to the demise of the species in the UK. We don’t know the extent of persecution by sport hunting.

Some reports say that they were hunted for their fur in England as it was highly valued. But once again there is currently no hard facts to support this (c.f. Sunquists account above).

I think we can say with a fair amount of confidence that some landowners sometimes took pot shots at the European wildcat in England before they became extinct in that country as mentioned above.

The extinction of the wildcat in the UK is due to the classic combination of habitat loss and persecution. I have said that the wildcat is extinct in that sentence. There will be some doubt about that. I would argue that there is no consensus as to whether the wildcat is or isn’t extinct at the moment in 2024.

This is because it is plausible to suggest that the remaining wild cats in Scotland, the last place in the UK where they are said to be present, are in fact all hybrids of the purebred animal due to mating with domestic and feral cats.

Hybridisation has arguably made the wildcat extinct in Scotland. This didn’t happen for 2000 years until around 60 years ago when hybridisation started according to a study. It quickly overwhelmed the country’s remaining wild cat population.

Why did this hybridisation suddenly take place? It must be linked to the almost doubling of the human population of Scotland from 1855 to the present day.

In 1855 the population of Scotland was about 3 million. In 2019 it was 5.46 million. More people, more settlements, more human activity of various kinds would lead to an increased risk of the wildcat encountering domestic cats and feral cats.

And the dwindling population of the wildcat would have put pressure on the remaining purebred wildcats to find mates to procreate and survive. It is argued that they mated with domestic cats for this reason. The underlying driver for this activity would of course be a dwindling population.

There comes a time when the population of a species is so small that there is inbreeding which jeopardises survival of the species as the animals become sterile. There needs to be genetic diversity in order to ensure a robust immune system and survival. Animals instinctively know this.

“Wildcats and domestic cats have only hybridised very recently. It is clear that hybridisation is a result of modern threats common to many of our native species.”

Jo Howard-McCombe

The study referred to is well publicised on the Internet. The lead author is Jo Howard-McCombe from the University of Bristol and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. I believe the study is entitled “Genetic swamping of the critically endangered Scottish wildcat was recent and accelerated by disease”.

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