The forest cat, one of the rare wild cats in Europe, expanding in France

By Angela Bolis

Posted today at 1:04 a.m., updated at 10:15 a.m.

On a trail in the Corbières massif, in Aude, Maxime Belaud scrolls through the images taken by his photo trap. Suddenly, he appears: a big cat with a lightly mottled tawny gray coat. Its bushy tail, adorned with black rings, leaves little doubt: it is a forest cat, Felis silvestris silvestrisone of the two wild cats in Europe with the lynx. “A handsome male”believes Mr. Belaud, of the Nature association in Occitanie.

The animal hesitates, sniffs the undergrowth… “There you go, he’s rubbing against the trunk instead of using my hair trap!” », plagues the naturalist. This time, there will therefore be nothing to collect on the wooden brush, impregnated with valerian roots to attract tomcats. But no matter: since December 2021, the association has been able to collect enough photos and samples to confirm, subject to genetic analyses, the presence of forest cats in the sector. And expand its official range a little further.

Photo of a forest cat rubbing on a hair trap, taken by an automatic camera on February 15, 2022, as part of the monitoring of the forest cat in Occitania.

In recent years, discoveries have followed one another on the little feline, which is experiencing an undeniable expansion in France. In 2020, the French Office for Biodiversity (OFB) attested to its presence in Hérault. Shortly after, he was photographed for the first time in the Drôme by hunters – without genetic analysis however. In 2021, the Nature association in Occitanie revealed its presence on the Montagne Noire, in the Tarn, with some 70 hair samples and 400 supporting photos.

Read also The Corsican “fox-cat”, a myth come true

This new study in the Aude, which is coming to an end, aims to better understand the connections between the cats of the Montagne Noire and those of the Pyrenees, a relict home where they have never disappeared. “We are trying to highlight the paths taken by the species to recolonize the territory, by concentrating our research on ecological corridors: hedges, riparian forests [boisements bordant les cours d’eau]forest islands…, explains Maxime Belaud. We are also trying to find out if the A61 motorway, which passes between the two sectors, constitutes an obstacle. » More broadly, the association is cooperating with the OFB to map its presence throughout Occitania: the public establishment is prospecting for its part in Aveyron, Lot and Lozère.

Slow reconquest

The expansion of the forest cat seems to have accelerated in recent years, but it is not new. From the 1980s and 1990s, the first studies on its distribution already showed a favorable dynamic: its numbers were becoming denser in the oldest centers.

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