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From Fox's Earth to Mountain Tarn
Wild Cat, Marten, and Polecat


IT is now many years since that most robust of naturalists, John Colquhoun, deplored the disappearance of the wild cat from the Highlands. He knew it well, in all its feral panoply. He describes it minutely, and from the life. In his breezy "Moor and Loch" is a presentment, not quite up to the standard of modern illustration, of the largest female ever taken in Dumbartonshire. There it appears grey, rough-haired, regularly striped, big-headed, square-jawed, and generally forbidding. The tail longer than, though not so thick as, that of the male. The pose crouching.

And on the authority of those who cannot be sure that they have ever seen a real wild cat alive, we are asked to believe, that several, bearing every point, and fitted to take the place of the Dumbarton cat on the page, are still prowling about. Some of them are even exhibited, to the delight of the curious, the majority of whom can scarcely be well enough informed to have an opinion. If John Colquhoun could revisit the scenes he knew and loved so well, it would be interesting to hear what he had to say. Much has happened since his day to make it only too probable that the specimens are, to say the least of it, doubtful.

The rush for grouse moors set in. The ambition for big bags reached the acute stage. Decades passed of steady merciless killing-out of "vermin." In the annals of wild life, if ever we take a more generous view of wild creatures, these may yet come to be known as the years of the persecution. Of that more anon. Such are not conditions under which increase is possible, or survival likely. Plainly the assertion of the reappearance of the wild cat in numbers asks for careful inquiry, and, perhaps, some other explanation. It is of the nature of resurrection, and these are not days of faith.

The state of the wild cat in the wood is complicated by the presence of a tame cat in the house. In so far, the case is singular among creatures of prey and peculiarly interesting. The domestic cat of the keeper, or crofter, going out of a night-as cats are wont to do, especially when there is caterwauling in the surrounding wilds met one of its kindred, nor were they so far apart that they should not mate.

This must have been going on for a very long time, since domestic cats are not a thing of yesterday. An occasional thinning of the tail in the trophies of the trap told the story. So long as the wild cat was strong in numbers mating would be less frequent, and the results quickly cast out. The more deeply fixed characters of the wild strain would resist change, the commanding influence of a wild environment would protect its own.

With the killing would result a very different state of matters. The relations would alter, the balance would tremble to the other side. When the wilds held only one solitary bachelor to caterwaul on the edge of the shades, and the nearest tame cat was in the next croft a mile or two up the glen, mating would be freer. The falling off in the wild strain would put the tame cat in possession of the future. Where were ten housecats for each wild one, the tame strain would have the advantage. When the proportion reached twenty it would dominate. No further power would remain to cast out the results. The cross would persist in the woods; it would increase in the houses.

A passer-by, who stooped to pussy, basking at some Highland cottage door, met with a decided objection to being stroked. There was a lowering of the ears, an opening of the mouth, a drawing out of the eyes, and other signs of wild nature. A keen eye could tell the source, apart from the fact that the domestic cat, purring alongside, blinking in the sunshine, and looking altogether so meek in comparison, had a claim to the maternity, and was at the rearing.

The wild blood would incline some of these to a feral or semi-feral state, or at least make them like a wild flavour after the drowse of the day. They would steal out on the edge of the mirk to return with the dawn, and finally not to come back any more, until brought in by their unsuspecting master as spoils of the trap. In the case of the wild cat being the female, the kittens would be reared outside by their savage mother in the same litter with some that took after their domestic father.

For a time must have lived in the Scots wood this intermediate order of crosses, some of them approaching nearer than others to the feral type. Gamekeepers trapped these, and inasmuch as their knowledge of the points was not very exact, called them wild cats. Experts pronounced on them, and naturalists, who come midway between, procured specimens. Then as now, and with very much greater reason, there may have been a tendency to pooh pooh the absence of the genuine wildling.

While the wild blood surged at half flood in the cottage brood the supply would be maintained, even when the woods were being cleared. Wanderers beyond the fence would fill the vacant place. As in their turn they were captured, others would come forth. A female might choose to have her young among the forest leaves instead of in the snug basket in the kitchen. At any time a wild cat might be had for a consideration, caught in the wilds, too, so that there should be no mistake. I n the dearth of captures an enterprising crofter might have obliged the curious from his own fireside.

The era of the crosses passed, as that of the true cat had done. Pussy no longer wore the feral panoply, nor put down her ears, nor sent sparks from her eyes, nor of a night did she seek to masquerade as a wild beast. She went forth in her own slinking gait and sleek coat, faintly scintillating in the dark. In wilder scenes some may have lingered on. In some remote croft may remain to this day descendants of the first cross to hunt the surrounding woods. This seems not improbable in the light of recent events. But for more than a quarter of a century no wild cat was heard of that would deceive a gamekeeper, bring a wise look into the face of an expert, or tempt a mere naturalist to a breach of the seventh commandment.

A friend, who has just returned from the north, tells me that the wilds round where he stayed were infested by cats. A chance shot was all that was tried for a while, till the visitation reached the dimensions of a plague. Field and covert were harried; fur and feather alike fell victims. Urgent need arose for more drastic treatment. Guns went out, and among them they had an excellent bag. Some were known to have returned to the houses. Some drowsed away the day in barns, and some were nomads. Nothing:

that was not common; no trace of a wild strain was in any of them. Yet wild cats were once there, and half-wild cats. If an extreme instance, this is sufficiently representative. To such through two gradations have come the old denizens of the wood. A probable condition for any future for the wild cat, say by reintroduction, would be an abatement of this nuisance—a tax on cats, as on curs.

A few years ago I tried the only way of finding out the hold, if any, the semi-wild cat had in Scotland. If yet abroad, the person who saw or trapped or shot them must be the gamekeeper, or, at least, he was sure to know. I therefore wrote to the head keeper of all the important estates throughout the Grampian range of Forfar, Perth, and Aberdeen; and no one of them all knew of either presence or capture. The reports are beside me now.

Each cat makes itself felt. Each pair would breed. For each season five young would be added. Unmolested, because unknown, as they seem to have been, they would increase indefinitely. All the more strange that they kept out of sight. All the more convincing the general testimony of their absence. If cats there were, then, at the distance of a quarter of a century, we should expect, not half a dozen, but legions. Each estate must have enough to restock the Highlands.

Some of these men had a record of thirty years’ service. Others had gone from one place to another, and knew the Highlands well. The crosses, which they were unlikely to be able to tell from the true wildlings, had passed before they came into office. No doubt domestic cats were shot and trapped. Of these the keepers said nothing; no tale could be made out of them.

Ousted from the central range, the cat retreated north and west to the ruder scenes of Ross and Sutherlandshire, where preservation was less strict. It was found there at a later date. I tried to follow it up, if by any means I could come on fresh spoor. The pursuit was belated. The footprints were blotted out, the scent cold. It was long since it passed that way. Like every one else I was interested in Charles St. John, alike for the charm of his personality and his delightful narrative. Of all naturalists he is perhaps the most attractive. The scarcity of birds on the way to Scourie he attributed to the number of wild cats, some of them, probably, crosses.

For years no wild cat had been there. At Tongue on the rocks were many wild cats. Naturalists and keepers alike—whose business or pleasure it is to know about the wild life—tell me that their haunts are empty. Like the osprey, once a spark of beauty in the adjoining lakes, the wild cat lives only in the fascinating page, where happily it will pass a certain charming immortality.

Still to the north and west, on the path of retreat, is the varied line of rocks seen from Durness. The cliff called "Far Out Head" is very nearly, if not quite, as northerly a point as Cape Wrath. The caves seem to offer a safe refuge to fugitives from extermination. An old and trusty keeper of Durness, Ewen Campbell, has trapped wild cats, but not for a long time.

A keeper showed St. John an immense cat, bred between a tame and a wild one. The cat of another keeper had a great antipathy to strangers, not suffering himself to be caressed or indeed scarcely to be looked at. These represent, in Sutherland, the semi-feral cats of the crofts and lodges of the Central Highlands, and were probably duplicated in the woods.

Where the proprietor took an interest in the wild life of his estates, I addressed myself to him. Nor had he any other account to give. The Duke of Sutherland says the wild cat is almost extinct. He might have said altogether, since Ewen Campbell knows nothing about it.

One of my authorities for the west coast was the late Duke of Argyll. An intelligent steward of his possessions, and an interested observer, he knew his Argyllshire and much that lay beyond. No creature could be there that he did not hear about. "Wild cats all gone, but within my memory." This was written to me on the 30th April, 1895. His memory dated back for sixty years.

In the time of Colquhoun, roughly the middle of last century, the wild cat was fast disappearing over the Grampian range. The concurrent testimony of the Duke of Argyll bears much the same date for the west coast. There were giants in those days, and such were the giants. Small men living in corners might correct some of the details. But it is usual to rely on the great authorities, as in the main right.

And though it lingered on in Sutherland, it was only for a while. Ewen Campbell, living in the latest district of the north-west, the vanishing area of our wild life, takes the dearth back for more than a quarter of a century. One meets with those who have heard of a forest, which still retreats on the approach. Such are unprofitable. Safer far to listen to reticent men, who keep within their experience.

One of life’s little ironies, chiefly affecting naturalists, is the eagerness to secure trophies of vanishing or vanished forms, with a view of proving that they are still alive, and to take it as a personal insult if the genuineness be called in question. It is always safe to doubt when this craze is on, and to hint that the very doubt shows that it is time for such dear friends of the wild animals to cease gathering trophies. It has come to this stage as between the naturalist and the wild cat. In any case the supply cannot be very large. It should be plain to the meanest understanding that where so many are being turned into skins—for the benefit of the lovers of life, who are so nervous lest they should be left with-out—if not extinct now, they soon will be.

One would like to believe in these specimens, not for the benefit of the collectors, but for the sake of the faint hope that they represent the untrapped which may yet be saved. Happily, their minds are made up, and one has less hesitation in hinting at a possible delusion.

For eager antiquarians is always a market in relics. So in natural history. The supply will be as perennial as the ignorance of the trapper, the credulity of the collector, the infallibility of the expert. Were it true, the traffic should be sharply stopped. As it is we can only wish the purchasers joy of their bargain. It will not be the first time a stuffed goose has passed for a swan.

There are no domestic martens to wander out to the woods of a night, there to meet and mate and raise a half-wild progeny under the shelter of the cottage roof. No crosses, therefore, to hide away for a while the vanishing of the old strain. The case is simple. There are not even two—the pine and common martens—as was once thought, living under somewhat different conditions, and with a double chance of survival. There is but one species, and when it has gone the end is reached. The way to perdition may be one way. The pace may be slower, but it is exceeding sure.

Where is the ingenuity of the lawless but interesting gentry of the midnight raid? Is not the triumph of human wit to turn to account the instincts of wild creatures, just as science makes use of the forces of nature? Why does the poacher not train the marten to ascend and bring the quarry down from its perch on the branches? Less clumsy this than the gun with its betraying crack! If it be said that they are unteachable, the answer is at hand, and will be given by and by.

The marten keeps a little behind the wild cat. One comes upon fresh footprints, hears something more definite than rumour. Scarce a mark is there in the Central Grampians, or whisper of its presence. For Argylishire, it is bracketed with the wild cat as "gone but within my time." Its date seems to have been somewhat later, its numbers dwindled more slowly.

On the track through Sutherland, where, in 1848, St. John found them so to abound, the live animal just keeps a hold. A sinuous form is occasionally seen to cross from covert to covert; the remains of the feast tell of the depredator.

At a pace midway between that of the wild cat and the marten, is the polecat going to, extinction. Some say there is defective observation here: it is really the marten that is going faster. A question of much the same purely speculative nature as which of two rabbits the cook put first into the pot. Any interest it has will pass when the hindmost follows. Such records as have been sent to me seem to bear out that the polecat has a slight advantage in the pace.

From the Central Highlands, from Argyllshire, and the west it vanished about the same time as the marten. In Sutherland and the north-west - the only district left for comparison—it is the rarer. Where the other lingers it is unknown. "There are no polecats in my district and neighbourhood. I have not seen one for ten years. There are still a few martens." So writes, from Scourie, an old gamekeeper who knows more about the wild creatures there than any man living. In the more inaccessible parts of Durness, it is hard to get beyond rumour. Ewen Campbell talks of the marten as a form of the past: no word whatever of the polecat.

Unlike the marten, and like the wild cat, there is a tame foumart, in so far as any creature can be called tame that has ever in it something dangerous. The instincts of the polecat are turned to man’s use. In the ferret, the species may be perpetuated long after the native wildling has gone. Ferrets escape, though not often, in the same district, as a pair. Put into the rabbit hole, they stay there; and baffle the digger in the labyrinth of passages. If unlikely to occupy the vacant haunts of their darker kindred, they will be preserved in the interests of sport.

The marten, which yet lingers, is irrecoverable when gone, and should be looked to without delay. The polecat will live on as the ferret; if not in the wilds, then in the shelter of some shed, and under the care of the keeper. Though denied a wild life, in captivity it will preserve its wild nature. As for the wild cat; why the wild cat will continue so long as there is a tabby.


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