Tracking the Highland Tiger
Marianne Taylor
Bloomsbury, £16.99
Review by Alastair Mabbott

The Scottish wildcat is a subspecies of the European wildcat, Felis silvestris, which appeared around two million years ago. For millennia, before their gradual retreat north, wildcats could be found right across Britain. Today, while the population decline of animals like otters, pine martens and polecats has been reversed, they are in greater danger of extinction than ever.

“In my mind,” writes Marianne Taylor, “the golden eagle, capercaillie and wildcat make up a trinity or triquetra, some top tier of wildlife magic that’s representative of the most mythical wilderness of Scotland. They hang on in their determined isolation as humanity presses in on their last refuges.”

It’s true that the odds have been stacked against them for a long time. Humans chopped down their forest habitat and, once they began to domesticate animals, considered the wildcat a threat to their livestock. Classed as vermin, they were denounced as malicious beasts in Medieval times and their numbers ruthlessly kept down – which may, incidentally, have contributed to the severity of the Plague. By the mid-19th century, they could only be found in their present habitat, the Highlands, and faced a new threat, one which is of the greatest concern to nature writer Marianne Taylor.

Since the chances of seeing a Scottish wildcat in its natural habitat are close to nil, the five trips Taylor took to Speyside and Ardnamurchan while researching this book become reasonably engaging accounts of encounters with eagles, corncrakes, tawny owls and capercaillie. She sees an otter messily devour a crab, and a mountain hare contemplating the landscape, but her real quarry is always out of reach. And therein lies the problem: with their scarcity and solitary natures affording them few opportunities to find partners, wildcats are increasingly mating with feral and domestic cats, diluting their “genetic uniqueness”. Tracking the Highland Tiger is a celebration of the wildcat, but also a warning that this rare animal could be hybridised out of existence.

The integrity of its DNA is a worry to her, at least in part because she thinks that if people regarded this endangered predator as a distinct native species, Felix grampia, they would be more protective of it. Cat-owners living near wildcat territory are, she says, beginning to accept that allowing their pets to run around un-neutered threatens to drive the wildcat to extinction, but few care enough to do anything about it. Taylor discusses measures that could be taken, such as captive breeding and rewilding countryside, but encouraging the public to forge an identification with an endangered animal is an essential part of its preservation too, and this book is an example of how that can be done.

At the heart of Tracking the Highland Tiger is the curious absence of its tantalisingly out-of-reach subject. This should be a drawback, and at times it feels like one. But Taylor’s book enhances the wildcat’s mystique by emphasising its almost supernatural elusiveness, and as any selkie or loch-dwelling monster would tell you, in the “mythical wilderness” of the Highlands there’s no quality more fitting or iconic.