History of the domestic cat living side by side with the wildcat in Britain (and Northern Europe)

Domestic cats have been in Britain for around at least 2,000 years and based on genetic analysis their ancestors were the Near Eastern wildcat (North African wildcat) which is now regarded as common knowledge. I had thought that the Romans brought domestic cats to Britain in around 200 AD but it appears to be earlier. The first invasion by Romans was in 43 AD.

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Very little mixing

Throughout these 2,000 years, domestic cats lived side-by-side with European wildcats. They coexisted and despite being able to mate in terms of genetics they hardly did through almost all of these 2,000 years including in mainland Europe. In other words, domestic cats and European wildcats coexisted throughout northern Europe but rarely mated.

There is some evidence of mating because the study I’m referring to (see below) states that 10% of the ancestry of domestic cats comes from European wildcats. Therefore, the domestic cat’s ancestor is not entirely the Near Eastern wildcat. There is some European wildcat in there as well.

And on the other side of the coin, this means that the European wildcat acquired some domestic cat genes. The study states that “ancient European wildcats possessed little or no ancestry from domestic cats”. This means that they possessed some ancestry but not much.

RELATED: Information about the hybridisation of the Scottish wildcat

Reason why they kept apart

And this same study states that the reason why there wasn’t much mating over this very long period of time between domestic and wild cats is because there were less human settlements in the past and therefore less domestic cats and there was a geographical distance between domestic cats and the wildcats living in the wild. Also, the study states that they have different reproductive behaviours.

Wildcats are only reproductively active in winter and spring while domestic cats are active all year. In addition, the study states that domestic cats “are likely to be competitively excluded from larger, more aggressive wildcats in other habitats with less abundant food.” I interpret this to mean that domestic cats living with people would be reluctant to become strays and live in areas where there are wildcats competing against them. In those historical times all domestic cats were indoor/outdoor cats and many were outdoor cats.

The end of the separation

But this idealised separation between domestic and wild cat came to an end due to “a drastic reduction in the distribution of wildcats which began prior to the 19th century and intensified in the second half of the 20th century”. In other words, the wildcat was being squeezed out of space because of increased human population numbers. There was habitat degradation and “encroaching human presence”. The last wildcat living in England was shot by a landowner in 1835 in the south.

Erosion of genetic integrity – the creation of hybrids

This led to “the erosion of the reproductive isolation that had maintained the genomic integrity of domestic and European wildcats for at least 2000 years.”

The interpretation of that statement is that the European wildcat and the domestic cat were no longer kept apart as they had been so effectively for about 2000 years and therefore they mated more often and therefore their genes merged i.e. the cats lack genomic integrity. They created hybrids. Hybrid cats lack genomic integrity.

Extinction by sex

And this problem has become so severe that some experts say that the European Wildcat in Scotland, called the Scottish wildcat is no longer a true, purebred wildcat but a hybrid. They say there are none left because the only ones you will see of which there are around 400 or less in the wild will be hybrids.

Captive, so-called purebred Scottish wildcat have been placed into the wild in Scotland in the Cairngorm region in the hope and expectation that they will breed and create a population there. The experts don’t tell me that these are purebred and I doubt whether they are. We can expect now to see near-purebred Scottish wildcat in Scotland in the future.

Study: Limited historical admixture between European wildcats and domestic cats. Link.

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