- Head Body Length: 45-80 cm (17-26″)
- Tail Length: 25.7-32.6 cm (10-12.8″)
- Weight: 3-8 kg (6-18 lbs)
The European Wildcat Felis silvestris is the size of a large domestic cat. It has a broad head and wide set ears. Their coat is thick and long in winter, grey-brown with a well-defined, individual pattern of black stripes on the head, neck, limbs, and a distinct dorsal line. It has a bushy, blunt-ending tail with several black rings and a black tip. Some individuals have a white spot on the throat. In the winter coat, this wildcat looks rather compact and short-legged, although in reality they have longer legs than most domestic cats. Melanism has never been recorded in Europe.
These cats inhabit parts of Europe, adjoining Russia and into central Asia. Formerly widely distributed in Europe, severe declines and local extirpations occurred in Europe between the late 1700s and mid 1900s, resulting in a fragmented distribution. It was considered regionally extinct in Austria but vagrants still occur and the Italian population is spreading northwards into Austria.
A study in the southern regions of the Netherlands (2016) showed that the European Wildcat population there is increasing. The study confirmed at least two dens with multiple kittens and identified at least 14 individuals in a southern province. The first Dutch wildcats were sporadically seen in 2002 and 2006 but since 2012 people have recorded wildcats more often. Research in 2015 identified eight individuals, two years later the number grew to 14. The wildcats most likely originate from Germany and Belgium. It seems that the population is spreading northwards faster than expected.
This Wildcat is primarily associated with forest habitat and is most abundant in broad-leaved or mixed forests. However, it also inhabits grassland and steppe habitats and can be found in the Mediterranean scrubland, riparian forest, marsh boundaries and along sea coasts or in very wet swampy areas. The European wildcat generally avoids areas of intensive cultivation and of high human densities or human activity. In the Pyrenees it is found up to 2,250 m elevation and also occurs in the Swiss Jura mountains.
European wildcats are considered solitary, mostly nocturnal and territorial predators. In areas with little human activity, wildcats are often active also during the day, with activity peaks at dawn and dusk. Cats in a study from western Scotland travelled over 10 km per night to forage on open ground and rested by day in thickets or young forestry plantations. For resting sites it prefers sheltered structures near forest edges. Home ranges in Scotland were 1-2 km² for females while home ranges in Hungary were 1.5-8.7 km². In north-eastern France home ranges of males were larger than the ones of females and overlapped with the ranges of 3-5 females. Home range overlap between individuals of the same sex was low.
Not much is known about their social behaviour. They use scent marks (urine spraying in both sexes and uncovered faeces) for communication. Vocal communication occurs throughout the year, but most frequently in the breeding season. Although it is an excellent climber, the wildcat hunts almost exclusively on the ground, stalking its prey followed by a quick attack.
The staple diet of the European wildcat is rodents such as rats, mice and voles. In areas where rabbits occur such as central Spain or parts of Scotland, they can be the major prey item. They occasionally take insectivores, birds, insects, frogs, lizards, hares and poultry or even smaller carnivores such as martens, weasels and polecats. They will also scavenge food. Their diet shows only minor seasonal variations with rodents or rabbits as the major prey item throughout the year.
The mating season is in late winter: January- March. Most births take place in April and May. Females can only breed twice in one year under exceptional circumstances such as when the first litter is lost. The estrus cycle lasts for 1-6 days when males are present and the gestation for 64-71 days, on average 68 days. Age at independence can vary from 5-10 months and sexual maturity is reached by females at 6.5-11 months and for males at 9-10 months. Kittens start to eat solid food when they are one month old, are weaned at the age of 3.5–4.5 months, and learn to hunt progressively between 3-5 months of age. Longevity is 12-16 years of age.
One of the main threats to the European wildcat is hybridisation with domestic cats which can lead to the loss of genetic variation or specific adaptations. Such hybrids are found almost throughout its entire range and there may be very few genetically pure European wildcat populations remaining. Hybrids between wildcats and domestic cats can look very similar to the wildcat which makes it difficult to assess the status of these cats.
Disease transmission from domestic cats and competition with feral cats for food are other potential threats. Human-caused mortality can be very high. Many wildcats get killed on roads or as by-catch in control measures for other carnivores. Rodenticides may also threat wildcat populations.
There is still a lack of information regarding its current status and population trends, and there have been no recent large-scale surveys or European regional reviews of the status of the European Wildcat.
They are fully protected over most of their range under national legislation. Hunting is regulated in Azerbaijan, Romania and Slovakia. It has no legal protection outside reserve areas in Bulgaria, Georgia and Romania. No information is available for Albania, Croatia and Slovenia.
The wildcat (including Felis silvestris and Felis lybica) is considered as Least Concern in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The European Wildcat has not yet been separately assessed in the IUCN Red List. It is considered threatened at the national level in many range states.