- Head Body Length: 47-65 cm (18-25″)
- Tail Length: 25.7-32.6 cm (10-12.8″)
- Weight: 2.3-7.2 kg (5-16 lbs)
The European Wildcat Felis silvestris silvestris was 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 is extinct in the Netherlands. It was considered regionally extinct in Austria but vagrants still occur and the Italian population is spreading northwards into Austria.
It occurs from sea level to 2,250 m in the Pyrenees. Sicily is the only Mediterranean island populated by European wildcats; populations on other islands are probably feral domestics stemming from Neolithic times.
Historically, habitat loss led to dramatic declines in Europe and Russia in the 18th to mid-20th centuries. In Scotland, 88% of wild-living cats may be hybrids or feral domestic cats, and in Italy and Hungary the proportion of hybrids is estimated at 8% and 25-31% respectively (using genetic methods). On the basis of museum specimens, the proportion of hybrids in Bulgaria was estimated at 8-10%, but the extent of hybridization may have increased since specimens were collected. Wild cats of mixed origin have also been found in Belgium, Portugal, Germany (only one animal) and Switzerland.
Eastern European populations are generally considered to be relatively pure. Outside Europe, the extent of hybridization is considered likely to be lower, but still significant.
The European cats have fur of a yellowish brown to buff grey and their coat is marked with variable patterns of ‘tabby’ stripes. There are four broad stripes on the nape of the neck, a single dorsal stripe which ends at the root of the tail and 3-5 rings on a bushy tail which ends in a blunt, black tip. The body stripes are most discernible in the west, and some eastern cats have none.
European wildcats are primarily associated with forest and are found in highest numbers in broad-leaved or mixed forests with low human densities. They are also found in Mediterranean scrubland, riparian forest, marsh boundaries and along sea coasts (not in Scotland). Areas of intensive cultivation are avoided.
They avoid high mountains, and are not found where snow covers more than 50% of the terrain or is more than 20 cm deep. They are active during the daylight in winter, but are strictly nocturnal in summer. They may remain inactive for up to 28 hours during heavy snowfall, rain or high winds.
The world’s population of domestic cats was estimated at 400 million twenty years ago, making the domesticated form of Felis silvestris one of the world’s most numerous animals. Feral cats compete with Wildcats for prey and space, and there is also a high potential for disease transmission between the two. Domestic cats hybridize readily with wildcats, and genetic analysis of wildcat samples found that most showed evidence of hybridization. There are probably very few populations remaining of genetically distinct wildcats.
Other threats include significant human-caused mortality, in Europe, especially road kills. Predator control measures in a number of European countries may result in this species being killed as bycatch.
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.
Back to the main Felis silvestris page.
Anile, S., Ragni, B., Randi, E., Mattucci, F. and Rovero, F. (2014), Wildcat population density on the Etna volcano, Italy: a comparison of density estimation methods. Journal of Zoology, 293: 252–261. doi: 10.1111/jzo.12141
Witzenberger KA, Hochkirch A (2014) The Genetic Integrity of the Ex SituPopulation of the European Wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) Is Seriously Threatened by Introgression from Domestic Cats (Felis silvestris catus). PLoS ONE 9(8): e106083. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0106083