In this way I think we may account for the size and appearance of the so-called ' wild cats' which are from time to time reported south of the Tweed.
"Perhaps the last genuine wild cat seen in England was the one shot by Lord Ravensworth at Eslington, Northumberland, in 1853;* although so recently as March, 1883, a cat was shot in Bullington Wood, Lincolnshire, which in point of size, colour, and markings was said to be quite indistinguishable from the wild Felis catus. Bullington Wood is one of an almost continuous chain of great woodlands, extending from Mid-Lincolnshire to near Peterborough. Much of the district has never been preserved for game, and keepers are few and far between; hence the wild animals have enjoyed an almost complete immunity from persecution. Cats are known to have bred in these woods in a wild state for generations, and there is no improbability that the cat in question may have descended directly from the old British wild cat. Under all the circumstances, however, it seems more likely to be a case of reversion under favourable conditions from the domestic to the wild type.
* "Trans. Tyneside Nat. Field Club," 1864, vol. vi. p. 123.
"In Ireland, strange to say, notwithstanding reports to the contrary, all endeavours to find a genuine wild cat have failed, the so-called 'wild cat' of the natives proving to be the 'marten cat,' a very different animal.
"We thus come back to the question with which we started, namely, the question of origin of the domestic cat; and the conclusion, I think, at which we must arrive is, that although Felis catus has contributed to the formation of the existing race of domestic cats, it is not the sole ancestor. Several wild species of Egyptian and Indian origin having been ages ago reclaimed, the interbreeding of their offspring and crossing with other wild species in the countries to which they have been at various times exported, has resulted in the gradual production of the many varieties, so different in shape and colour, with which we are now familiar."
Before quitting the subject, I would point to the fact that when the domestic cat takes to the woods and becomes wild, it becomes much larger, stronger, and changes in colour; and there can be little doubt that during the centuries of the existence of the cat in England there must have been numberless crosses and intercrosses, both with regard to the males of the domestic cat as with wild females, and vice versa; yet the curious fact remains that the wild cat still retains its peculiar colouring and form, as is shown by the skins preserved in the British Museum and elsewhere.
Mr. Darwin, in his "Voyage of the Beagle," 1845 (p. 120), in his notes of the first colonists of La Plata, a.d. 1535, says, among other animals that he saw was "the common cat altered into a large and fierce animal, inhabiting the rocky hills," etc.
Another point on which I wish to give my impressions is the act of the cat in what is termed "sharpening its claws." Mr. Darwin notes certain trees where the jaguars " sharpen their claws" and mentions the scars were of different ages; he also thought they did this " to tear of the horny points.'" This, I believe, is the received opinion among naturalists; but I differ entirely from this view of the practice. It is a fact, however, and worthy of notice, that all cats do so, even the domestic cat. I had one of the legs of a kitchen table entirely torn to pieces by my cats; and after much observation I came to the conclusion that it has nothing whatever to do with sharpening the claws, but is done to stretch the muscles and tendons of the feet so that they work readily and strongly, as the retraction of the claws for lengthened periods must tend to contract the tendons used for the purpose of extending or retracting; therefore the cats fix the points of their claws in something soft, and bear downwards with the whole weight of the body, simply to stretch and, by use, to strengthen the ligatures that pull the claws forward.
It is also to be noted that even the domestic cat goes to one particular place or tree to insert the claws and drag forward the muscles - perhaps even in the leather of an arm-chair, a costly practice. Why one object is always selected is that they may not betray their presence by numerous marks in the neighbourhood, if wild, to other animals or their enemies. I have mentioned this to my brother, John Jenner Weir, F.L.S., and he concurs with me throughout.
I find in Strutt's "Sports and Pastimes" that of the names applied to companies of animals in the Middle Ages, several are still in use, though many have become obsolete; and also a few of the beasts have ceased to exist in a wild state. Some were very curious, such as a skulk of foxes, a cete of badgers, a huske or down of hares, a nest of rabbits, and a clowder of cats, and a kindle of young cats. Now cats are said to kitten, and rabbits kindle.
The following shows the value of the cat nearly a thousand years ago; it is to be found in Bewick's "Quadrupeds": " In the time of Hoel the Good, King of Wales, who died in the year 948, laws were made as well to preserve as to fix the different prices of animals; among which the cat is included, as being at that period of great importance, on account of its scarcity and utility.
"The price of a kitten, before it could see, was fixed at one penny; till proof could be given of its having caught a mouse, twopence; after which it was rated at fourpence, which was a great sum in those days, when the value of specie was extremely high. It was likewise required that it should be perfect in its sense of hearing and seeing, should be a good mouser, have its claws whole, and, if a female, be a careful nurse. If it failed in any of these good qualities, the seller was to forfeit to the buyer a third part of its value. If any one should steal or kill a cat that guarded the Prince's granary, he was either to forfeit a milch ewe, her fleece and lamb, or as much wheat as when poured on the cat suspended by its feet (its head touching the floor), would form a heap high enough to cover the tip of the former."Bewick remarks: "Hence we may conclude that cats were not originally natives of these islands, and from the great care taken to improve the breed of this prolific creature, we may suppose were but little known at that period."