There are a few wild cats that give me tail envy, notably the snow leopard with her thick silvery-grey tail or the sand-cat with his bushy black-tipped buff-coloured appendage. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my own long, sleek and silky extremity but there are times when a plush heavy tail would be an advantage. Like when I want to look tough in front of the tabby cat next door who has the audacity to sit on my front door step, or when I’m curling around John’s legs as part of my ‘have treat, will eat’ strategy.
Another tail of splendour belongs to the Scottish wildcat, a muscular striped feline that would be insulted if you said it looked just like the neighbour’s pet tabby! The tail is thick and ringed with perfect bands of black and brown while its agility and resourcefulness epitomise the wild spirit of the Highlands that it calls home. The wildcats in these pictures live at the British Wildlife Centre in Lingfield because they are critically endangered and form part of a conservation and breeding programme. Their numbers in the wild have decreased due to deforestation, human persecution and cross-mating with feral domestic cats which produces hybrids and dilutes the true wildcat genes.
British Wildlife Centre
British Wildlife Centre
Last time I went to the British Wildlife Centre I found out that the wildcat is truly untameable and just like a tiger or a leopard it is biologically designed to be happiest in its natural environment. I cannot imagine surviving outdoors, finding shelter and hunting for food, avoiding predators and caring for young. Sounds like a lot of work to me! When the keepers enter the enclosures, the wildcats keep their distance, prowling around the bushes with their ears pointed forward and their supple bodies ready to respond to the slightest noise or movement. Suddenly their piercing eyes focus unblinking on the keeper as she takes a piece of meat from her bag and throws it into the air where the wildcat leaps swiftly up to catch it and takes it away somewhere private to eat. I wonder if that’s why I take the food out of my bowl and put it on the floor, because some base instinct within me thinks I should run off with it. I spent the rest of that day thinking how lucky I am to have all the luxuries that come with being a domesticated feline photographer and entrepreneur.
The Scottish wildcat has overcome many obstacles including lack of food (due to lower numbers of prey animals), habitat loss and human persecution and they have survived for five hundred more years than the British wolf and over a thousand years more than the British bear or lynx. The last of the British lynx disappeared around 700AD, hunted to extinction for its fur. As a fur wearing creature myself, I find the notion of humans wearing fur in this modern age to be cruel and unnecessary, and even more so the concept of exterminating an entire species for its skin. Wear your own skin!
There are some fine specimens of the solitary and secretive Eurasian lynx residing in zoos and sanctuaries across the country as you can see from the photos. I am excited to say that there is a group of conservationists dedicated to reintroducing the lynx back into the ecosystem of the British Isles in order to restore some balance to the ecology of the forests. Their presence would help control the deer population which has grown exponentially due to top predators such as wolves and bears becoming extinct, thereby protecting flora and fauna from deer damage and bringing economic wealth to rural areas through wildlife tourism. I personally would support the introduction of any animal with a tail so lustrous and bushy that it would be the envy of every pussy cat in the land.
“Hurry up” yelled John as I feverishly flicked my litter all over the room, “Its 9.30 already and the sun is shining so the world and his dog will be on the roads”. He knows I need to go to the bathroom before a trip in the car so I glanced curtly in his direction before trotting to the hallway mirror to check my fur. My whiskers needed a quick lick before springing proudly outwards and I was ready for our day out at the Raystede Centre in Ringmer (East Sussex). The Centre started caring for animals 60 years ago and provides sanctuary to a whole host of creatures including goats, horses, turkeys, ducks, geese, tortoises and terrapins.
I was looking forward to seeing the donkeys because of their delightfully large ears and characteristic ‘eee-awe’ which can apparently be heard up to 2 miles away. I have a lot of respect for donkeys who have been used as working animals by humans for thousands of years, often being abused and neglected while they carry heavy loads for people across the world. Lizzy and Dolly are 18 and 12 years old respectively and were living in a field near Brighton when their owner died and they had no one left to care for them. The keepers told me that donkeys are bright animals and take time to assess what they are being asked to do before agreeing to it which has unfairly led to them being labelled as stubborn. They form strong bonds with their human and equine companions and (like horses) should be kept in pairs or herds, never alone. They are not waterproof and need adequate shelter to protect them from the elements as well a visit from the farrier on a regular basis.
The alpacas live in the fields with the horses during the day and are cleverly left to roam the secured sanctuary at night to protect the birds and wildlife from foxes by braying as an alarm call, kicking and even spitting at any potential predators. They looked rather hoity-toity and wouldn’t stay still for the camera so John and I moved swiftly on to the waterfowl haven. We knew where it was before we got there due to the great cacophony of noise that was coming from the flocks of ducks and geese honking and quacking around the lake. As we strolled along the footpath near the water’s edge, a greylag goose walked past that was taller than me. For some reason John thought the sight of my behind swaying as I swaggered alongside a goose waddling was quite amusing. The cheek!
There were no cats visible in the cat pens even though they were occupied and I expect the moggies were not in the mood to be gawped at. You know how particular pussy-cats can be! But I did see a picture of a fluffy black and white called Branson with a fetching beauty spot on his nose. He was found abandoned in a suitcase outside a shop in Eastbourne, traumatised but thankfully unharmed. With this kind of past, it’s no surprise that cats like Branson can be a bit shy, but given a bit of time and space they blossom into little cherubs. Unlike this little tyke in the picture, a hyperactive white terrier type schnauzer-cross called Edwina who needs a home with experienced owners to manage her high-energy outlook on life. Bruno the chocolate Labrador was a handsome boy and much more laid back than the crazy yapper.
We continued around the Centre and came across the rabbit run which included a rather creative demonstration of what a garden for a rabbit should look like. Next to each other were 2 plots. One was a boring bare patch of grass with a small hutch at the end where a sad rabbit might live. The other was called Home Sweet Home and was an interesting space filled with grass and earth, shrubs and leafy plants, bits of wood and a decent sized hutch
Red squirrel numbers have been dwindling for many years in this country since the introduction of the grey squirrels that are more adaptable and carry more body fat so they can survive longer winters. That must be why I have a little round tummy, it’s in my genes! Anyway, the greys were introduced from North America in 1876 apparently and they carry a virus which has also contributed to the red squirrels’ decline. There are a few projects underway in the UK to support the growth of the red squirrel population and you can find out more about this on the Red Squirrel Survival Trust website. How cute is that? They’ve got a website! They’ve even got royalty supporting them. And I’m not talking about Alan Titchmarsh! Although some might say he is a gardening supremo and he certainly does his bit to support British wildlife.
The reds in these pictures live at the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey and were so adorable that I had to write about them. As I went through the double gates after John, they must have all been hiding because the enclosure was lacking in squirrels, apparently they don’t like the wet and the cold. I saw a few chaffinches in the branches of the leafy green oak trees and some little Muntjac deer rummaging around in the undergrowth. Suddenly my feline hearing picked up the scraping of tiny feet and one by one, red squirrels started to appear on the grass. Several of them climbed up to the fence to get a good look at me, their little pink noses twitching with curiosity as they fixed me with their beady black eyes. They seemed to use their tufty ears to express how they were feeling, just like I do, and they dedicated a large amount of their time burying the food that the keeper was giving them. I watched them scurry along to a well-chosen spot, look around, then pretend to bury their nuts before scurrying off to another patch of ground to bury their grub for real. This clever little strategy is a good way to put the competition off the scent and stop the others stealing their supplies. Let’s hope they remember where the nuts are buried!
Not many animals can grow themselves a pair of earmuffs every winter to keep their ears warm. But the attractive ear tufts of the red squirrel are only required during the winter months and are molted in time for summer, ready to sprout again the following year. I have tufty bits on my ears but they don’t shed and spread according to the season. Still, I’m not jealous! Anyway, if I want warm ears, John puts a woolly beanie on my head, which never goes down well because it messes up my coiffure! The super-friendly red squirrels roam free in the walk-through enclosure and there were also some young ones called kittens can you believe. I watched them hurtle across the trees and climb up John’s leg and one of them sat on his backpack and nibbled a toggle in case it was a nut. They didn’t have to wait long for food when the keeper came with a bag of sunflower seeds, pine-nuts, apples and carrots. It’s a myth that red squirrels eat acorns because in fact the acorn is difficult for the squirrel to digest. Sadly they are very few in numbers thanks to the introduction of the grey squirrel from North America. Not the poor old grey squirrel’s fault of course, but they carry a virus that is lethal to reds and have a tendency to gobble up the food before it matures enough for the reds to eat.
The British Wildlife Centre in Lingfield (Surrey) was the location of my tour of Britain’s nature and it was a fabulous opportunity to see a great collection of species native to the country including buzzards, eagle owls, adders, badgers, Muntjac deer and the endangered water vole. The dinky little stoats and weasels were only around 7-10cm long and as cute as buttons but apparently they are voracious little carnivores and you wouldn’t want to stick your paw out to one of them. Stoats, weasels, polecats, mink and pine martens are members of the ‘mustelid’ family and have all faced persecution by being hunted for their fur. But they are feisty little critters and a few escapees are starting to re-populate numbers in the wild. Unlike the meek and mild hedgehog who are becoming increasingly rare in the UK’s gardens and hedgerows. I was lucky enough to watch Turbo, a zippy little spikey thing with the tiniest of noses scuttle around in the grass with her keeper, showing us all how delightful hedgehogs are. John and I were so moved by their plight for survival that we are now making a few adaptations to the garden to make it a hedgehog friendly place.
As John and I continued our strolls around this wonderfully natural place, I stopped suddenly, sensing the close proximity of a family relative. I expected to see fearsome felines as I stalked my way to the Scottish wildcat enclosures, creeping slowly round the corner on my haunches, keeping my head low to the ground as my eyes darted left to right. But instead of terrifying, the 3 quiet striped tabby cats with bushy ringed tails in front of me were really quite pretty and surprisingly small. My posture changed to that of a confident moggy with a swagger in his step and a flick in his sleek black tail. But my cockiness was soon replaced by a healthy respect when I found out that although they have pink noses and white whiskers and are the same size as me, their species dates back to pre-history and they are completely untamable. Domestic cats like me are descended from the African wildcat and have developed a certain understanding with our human companions, but the Scottish wildcat is truly wild and walked this land for millions of years before mankind arrived or domestic cats even existed. Even sadder then to find out that they are on the brink of extinction thanks to hunting and habitat destruction. Once found across the British mainland, they are now confined to the Scottish Highlands and number as a few as 300. The cats at the Centre represent pure stock and have been identified as suitable for a captive breeding programme aimed at reintroduction to the wild. In the meantime, they are being well cared for at the Centre and I noticed that all the animals lived in paddocks and pens that reflect their natural habitats, the drinking water in every enclosure was clean, and it was clear that the focus of the Centre was the animals. So good luck my little furry friends and I hope you prosper!