As a species, the wildcat is divided into many regional subspecies and their number and classification varies depending on which school of thought is followed. The range of the species as a whole extends across most of the 'Old World'. From parts of North West Europe, through the Middle East, parts of Asia and generally (excluding the true dessert areas) throughout The African continent.
Broadly speaking, the species can be split into three main groups - F. silvestris.silvestris the European wildcat (Silvestris Group) found mainly in forested areas of Europe - F. silvestris.lybica the African wildcat (Lybica Group), distributed in various coloured forms in most of Africa apart from the Sahara and equatorial rainforest areas and F.silvestris.ornata the Indian Desert or Steppe wildcat (Ornata Group) found in various regions of western Asia through to parts of India and Southern Asia.
The European or Forest Wildcat as it is often called, was once found throughout Europe and is considered by some to be the oldest form of the species - limited fossil records indicate an ancestral link to Martelli's Wildcat dating back to the Early Pleistocene period . During the past 300 years the range of the European wildcat, through pressures bought about by hunting and the spread of human population, has been significantly reduced. Today the cat is only to be found in scattered populations in parts of France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the United Kingdom, Greece, parts of Eastern Europe and countries around the Black Sea to west of the Caspian Sea - several island populations, such as those found on Sardinia, Crete and other Mediterranean islands are also recognised as part of the European group by some, whilst others maintain a closer link to the lybica group (African wildcat).
Unlike the African wildcat which is commonly divided into many regional sub-species the European form (excluding those found on the various Mediterranean islands) is divided into only three sub-species - silvestris, the main sub-species covering most of the European population - caucasica, found only in Turkey and around the Caucasus mountains and grampia, found solely in parts of Scotland.
Generally, the fur of the European species is dark in colour, ranging from slate grey to a darker mid brown and is marked similarly to a domestic tabby, except that the stripes are spaced further apart and are often less pronounced. Similar in size to a large domestic cat, the European wildcat has a broader head, longish fur and a shorter, blunted tail - white patches are often to be found on the throat, chest and abdomen. Regional differences in coloration are common - all black forms have been observed in both the Caucasus and Scottish sub-species, although these have been described not as true melanistic variants, but as complex hybrids between wildcat and local feral/domestic cats. However, recent specimens of the Scottish black coated wildcat, known locally as the 'Kellas Cat' have been subject to further morphological study and of the eight specimens studied one has been authoritatively established as a pure melanistic wildcat.
The European wildcat inhabits mainly forested areas - F.s.silvestris preferring coniferous cover whilst the Caucasian sub-species being found mainly in deciduous woodland - the Scottish wildcat however, is often found in more open heathland and rocky moorland. This difference in habitat between the Scottish and remaining European sub-species is also mirrored in a variation of main prey species. The staple diet for the majority of European wildcats is that of small rodents such as wood mouse, pine vole, water vole and shrew - whilst of the wildcats studied in Scotland the major prey species was observed to be rabbit and hare, species more abundant in open terrain. Across the European wildcat as a whole, birds feature as a secondary source of food and small mammals, small reptiles and insects are seen to supplement the diet. Interestingly, at odds with the domesticated cats love of fish, wild cats rarely prey on fish in the wild.
By far the greatest threat to the European Wildcat is that of hybridisation. Although many of the wildcat sub-species live in remote regions, many live in relative close proximity to human habitation and in as much, close to domestic and feral cat populations. In these areas wildcats often mate with domestic and feral cats and over an extended period of time it is possible that certain sub-species will simply 'breed' themselves out of existence. Recent research shows that of all the Scottish wildcat and feral populations as few as one in eight are pure bred 'wildcat' with the remaining hybrids ranging from close wildcat to almost pure feral/domestic. In the light of this F.silvestris grampia has been listed as Endangered by the IUCN.