The intrepid explorer has been awoken in PETER FROST who heads fearlessly into the wilderness of the Ardnamurchan peninsula to catch a glimpse of the fabled wildcat
They call them Highland tigers — it’s a good name for one of the world’s most endangered animals.
Experts estimate there may be only 35 pure-bred individuals left. This compares with fewer than 2,500 wild Bengal tigers and makes them 70 times rarer than the giant panda.
So what are we talking about? The beast in question is the Scottish wildcat — Felis silvestris grampia — the only wild member of the cat family to have survive in Britain and now critically threatened.
Compared to other wild cats worldwide, the Scottish wild species is small. However, it is larger than the usual domesticated housecat. The wildcat is similar in appearance to a striped tabby cat, but has relatively longer legs, a more robust build, and a bigger skull to hold its larger brain.
The most obvious way to identify the animal is its magnificent tail — very thick and clublike with big bold distinct rings around it. That tail is long, more than half of the animal’s body length. Ears are moderate in length, and broad at the base. Eyes are large, with vertical irises.
Males measure 43 to 91cm (17 to 36in) in body length, add to that a 23 to 40cm (9.1 to 15.7in) tail. Its normal weigh is 5 to 8kg (11 to 18lb). Females are slightly smaller, body measuring 40 to 77cm (16 to 30in) the tail adding 18 to 35cm (7.1 to 13.8in). Females weigh 3 to 5kg (6.6 to 11lb).
Both sexes possess scent glands around the anal opening and along the tail. In males these play a significant role in reproduction and territorial marking.
The cats have good night vision and an acute sense of smell — that allows then to detect meat at 200m.
I’m on my tiger hunt on the Ardnamurchan peninsula in Lochaber, in the Scottish Highlands.
This is 50 square miles of some of Britain’s wildest wilderness. It is home to Gaelic speakers, pine martens, golden and white tailed eagles.
At the end of the peninsula a 118 ft (36m) lighthouse looks out from British mainland’s most westerly headland — Ardnamurchan point. You reach the Point by a single track road that runs the length of the peninsula.
The entire peninsula is the last and most important home of the true Scottish wildcat. Best estimates indicate that there are only three dozen or so left with perhaps another 150 that are crosses between true wildcats and feral cats.
This interbreeding is the biggest threat to the survival of the species.
A charity, The Wildcat Haven Project, aims to protect the species by catching and neutering feral and hybrid wildcats to prevent them breeding with pure wildcats.
Geneticist Paul O’Donoghue, the scientific adviser to the project since 2012, explains the strategy: “Feral cats are the biggest danger to the future of the Scottish wildcat. They interbreed and you end up with hybrids of varying degrees.”
His aim is to reduce and eventually totally remove the feral cat population from this area.
Eventually the wildcat population will become purer as feral animals and crossbreeds die out.
Wildcats, feral cats and crossbred animals are cought in traps baited with mackerel and fish oil. When feral cats or crosses are cought, they are neutered and released. If it looks like a pure wildcat, its DNA will be recorded to test just how pure-bred it is.
Today the Scottish wildcat is one of if not the most endangered animal, not just in Scotland but on the planet. It needs all the protection we can offer particularly in the Ardnamurchan peninsula.
There are many reasons why the 300 square miles of the Ardnamurchan peninsula is worth a visit for those who love the countryside.
You will see seabirds, marine mammals, pine martens, golden eagles, and white-tailed sea eagles all against a background of beautiful, untouched wild Highland country.
But the cherry on the haggis will undoubtedly be the spotting of the rare and secretive Highland tiger.