Friday 7 January 2011

Wild cat or hybrid?

We seek them here, we sika them there
Published:  06 January, 2011
THERE are a number of mysteries about mammals in the Highlands and I suppose the main one is just what is the status and future of the wildcat.This has been occupying the minds of a fair number of people for many years but it is mainly in the last two or three that some light has been thrown on the many problems.It is not only this but also the wild claims by many so-called experts. The problem is that many people can postulate all sorts of theories but, as they cannot be proved right or wrong, there is no answer.The wildcat is a native mammal which makes it that much more important. There have been great efforts in the last few years to gather film footage of true wildcats and the recent attempts in the Cairngorm area seem to have paid off.Fortunately these days there is a great deal of information on how to tell the difference between true wildcats, hybrids and feral domestic cats, and what they call the "feral tabby cat".Another mystery is over wild goats, some people prefer to call them feral. At present there is very little information on the tribes of them that have occupied some sites for very many years, if not hundreds.This highlights the intriguing fact that there is no current book on this fascinating animal that has paid such an important part in the history of many and its close liaison with man, from the earliest times through its heyday around 200 years ago.The monograph entitled The Wild Goats of Great Britain and Ireland by G Kenneth Whitehead was published in 1972. Incredibly there has been no authoritive book on goats since then, nearly 40 years ago.The problem is that in the last two decades goats, sometimes whole tribes, have been shot out for various reasons. The latest reason seems to be in an attempt to control the ticks that can spread disease to red grouse.So at present we really have no idea what the current status and range of the old wild goat tribes of the Highlands, and for the matter some of the Islands, really is.When we do find out I think people will be shocked at the low numbers of goats in the Highlands. Perhaps we should launch a survey through this Country Diary.Another mystery over mammals in the North is that of the current status of the sika deer that, starting in the late 19th century, were introduced for various reasons. Some were introduced into the famous deer parks both for adornment and for fresh venison. Others were introduced to areas for shooting and venison, plus their heads as trophies.For some unknown reason, those that escaped did not seem to spread. It was not until the beginning of the 1970s that rumours over their presence in some areas started to be realised. Now the situation is very serious, although how serious still seems to be a mystery.The overriding fact is that sika successfully hybridise with red deer and unfortunately this is a problem.The first stage of hybridisation means that you can tell which are hybrids. I have seen some with characteristics of red and sika in Strathdearn a few years ago. However, after the initial cross it is difficult to tell as pure-looking red deer can be hybrids and vice versa.DNA then seems to be the only answer. At present we simply do not know just how far this hybridisation has gone in Britain, let alone the Highlands.The photograph was of a group of varying aged true sika stags, at least I believe so, and one with, unusually, only one antler.As for the introductions, that is another wildlife detective story for another column.
Was wildcat real thing?THE record of the week was a wildcat found dead on the side of the road in Strathnairn only about half a mile from where I live.At first glance I did just wonder whether it could have been a true wildcat. There have been occasional reports in the last two or three years of so-called wildcats, including one shot - needless to say by gamekeepers - despite the legislation.

This one, presumably a road kill, looked like the genuine article until I took a closer look.I turned to the latest mammals books, Mammals of the British Isles published by the Mammal Society in 2008. There is a superb photograph of cat skins, one of them is a true wildcat, then a hybrid and then a feral tabby.The accompanying account is one of the best I have read. The wildcat from the roadside was quite large, three feet in length with its tail about a foot.The tail and the rings around it were right but the tip was not club shaped. Most of the markings and stripes on the head nape and flanks were right but there was something about its whole appearance that made me think it was a hybrid.Through the good auspices of the Scottish Agricultural College in Inverness, who could not have been more helpful, we will know its true identity.It will be sent to the National Museum of Scotland where Andrew Kitchener will get the DNA and analysis sorted out.It will be fascinating to see the correct identification, so watch this space

A story worth following. Hybrids are an interesting one for cryptozoologists.Maybe some of the best known cryptids are hybrids? Just a thought for the weekend for you to ponder.

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