Page last updated at 18:05 GMT, Sunday, 2 May 2010 19:05 UK

Scottish wildcat seen on Mull 'may have swum to island'

Peter Harris's photograph of the wildcat
The Scottish Wildcat Association wants to send a team to investigate the sighting

A rare wildcat spotted on a Scottish island could have swum there, an expert has said.

The animal was photographed last week by holidaymaker Peter Harris on Mull in the Inner Hebrides, about a mile from the mainland.

Steve Piper, from the Scottish Wildcat Association, said the animal may have swum across as, unlike domestic cats, they do not fear water.

There are thought to be about 400 pure wildcats and 3,500 hybrids in Scotland.

Mr Harris, 34, spotted the animal near the Glengorm Estate on the north of the island while he was on a visit with his wife.

They are pretty decent swimmers though it seems a long way for a cat to get all the way over to Mull

Steve Piper

He said: "I noticed it crouching in the undergrowth silhouetted against the dried grass and I was pretty sure straight away that it was a wildcat because I had seen them at the wildlife park at Kingussie and I saw the thick black stripe on its back and its bushy tail.

"We pulled over and got out of the car and I could see it cleaning itself.

"There was a ditch between the road and the grass verge where it was sitting so it didn't seem too alarmed when I went nearer to take photos and watched me with a rather wary eye.

"We were incredibly lucky because it stayed there for about 10 minutes before turning round and slinking off into the undergrowth."

Mr Piper said he was surprised to find that one of the animals had made it to the island, which has no bridge linking it to the mainland.

"It could have got there by swimming," he said.

Rare occurrence

"Wildcats are not scared of water like a domestic cat.

"They are pretty decent swimmers though it seems a long way for a cat to get all the way over to Mull.

"From the photos it's not necessarily a pure wildcat but it has very nice markings and that rough coat and that wild sort of look to it and the thick tail.

"It's very helpful to get photos of sightings because we really don't know too much about where they live."

Wildcats are afraid of humans so it is unlikely the hybrid stowed away on a ferry, he said.

Mr Piper said the other option was that it had been found in the wild as a kitten and handed to the Cats Protection charity for rehoming, though he added this was a rare occurrence.

Thick tail

He said hybrid kittens looked like domestic kittens and their true identity only emerges when they are older.

The expert now hopes to take a team to the island to investigate the sighting.

Wildcats look like large muscular tabbies, but can be distinguished by their rough coat with distinctive tiger stripe markings, thick tail with black rings and a black stripe along the back extending on to the tail.

They were once found across the British mainland, but habitat loss and inter-breeding with domestic cats has led to numbers falling dramatically, and only a small population still clings on in Scotland, mainly in the Highlands.

Scientists have launched a groundbreaking study to trace the movements of the animal in the Cairngorms National Park, using specialist equipment including motion detectors, infra-red technology and camera traps.

The scientists have set up a series of camera traps in the park in the hope that pictures will provide vital information to help them to learn more about the cat's habits.

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