Early one summer’s morning, around 20 years ago, a friend was driving me “back down” to the railway station at Inverness. We had just set out, travelling a slow side-road through scrubby deer woods, not far from Kiltarlity; it was warm for that time of day, the air slightly hazy between the stands of gorse and fallen stones from an old wall.
Not surprisingly, the road was empty, so it felt that we were the only people awake for miles and, though I had a train to catch, we’d left plenty of time to make it a leisurely trip, going slow on country roads with the windows open to enjoy one last hour of fresh northern air. Nevertheless, I was a little bemused when my friend brought the car to a sudden halt, so that we were sitting right in the middle of a single-track road, with the still woods all around us and not a sound to be heard. Then, before I could say anything, he brought a finger to his lips and looked meaningfully out to the right, a short distance from the car. My eyes followed his; he was a great bird spotter, and I was expecting some winged rarity perched on a fallen rock, but for a long moment I didn’t see why he had stopped – and then I did.
It was a wildcat, frozen to the spot, its head up, watching us – or rather, watching for whatever it was that it had just sensed, but had not yet identified. It wasn’t afraid. It stood watching for a minute or more, allowing us to get a good look – and it quickly became apparent that this was a true wildcat, a large male well into his prime, with clear, dark “tiger” stripes to the back and tail, stockier than any domestic cat yet lithe and wonderfully self-contained.
He was beautiful, with an odd fieriness to him, in spite of his detailed camouflage, but it was easy to see, as we sat there, that it was true what country people say – the wildcat can never be tamed and, even though we had a metal door between us, I felt the privilege of the encounter. A privilege that lasted for a minute, maybe two, and then, before I knew what was happening, the wildcat was gone. Even now I remember it as vividly as if it were yesterday, and I still feel that sense of privilege.
It was a rare sight then, but it would be even rarer now. By the early 1900s, the Scottish wildcat had almost disappeared; today, having fought its way back from the brink of extinction, it is under threat again, with some observers estimating that we are down to our last 35 pure specimens. Wildcats are secretive animals, but they are also highly territorial – and that poses a problem for conservation. As numbers have diminished, so the population has become confined to narrow pockets in places where the land is still hospitable to their way of life.
Yet, though the wildcat doesn’t ask for much, the more enterprising of our species seem determined to allow it nothing at all: witness, for example, the recent news that around a third of Scotland’s wildcat population could be wiped out by a proposed wind farm development at Clashindarroch Forest in Aberdeenshire – a project that many self-designated “greens” will presumably not protest because, for ideologues, wind energy is always good, even when it is very obviously bad. But could we not pause for thought just long enough to see that there are plenty of places to locate wind farms, sites that do not destroy endangered species and their habitat? Or must the last of these beautiful animals die out because of an ideology?
This article appears in the 11 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce