Copyright 2002, Sarah Hartwell

According to the Mammal Society which extrapolated the catches of a ridiculously small number of cats into figures for Britain's 7 million or so domestic cats, cats are slaughtering small mammals and songbirds by the billion. This unrealistically large tally (sadly taken as gospel by a gullible media) derives from the presence of a few super-predators in an unscientifically tiny sample size, coupled with a complete and utter failure to take into account the number of ill, indoor, geriatric and generally bone-idle non-hunting mogs. In an attempt to redress the imbalance, the Alternative Cat Predation Survey is derived from an equally unrepresentative cross-section of Britain's felines - my own cats.

Kitty hunted dogs. At an indeterminate age somewhere in her teens, this diminutive and skinny tabby managed a toll of one "terrier", a Spaniel and a Labrador. The terrier took refuge under our car, held at bay by a dribbling geriatric moggy who really only wanted to play. The Spaniel crumpled under Kitty's iron paw and morphed into a cat bed. The Labrador, according to the owner, was regularly beaten up in his own home, robbed of his food and remains phobic of small toothless tabby cats.

Kitty: two years' tally: 3 Dogs, all returned unharmed if a bit shaken.

Ex-feral, Scrapper had survived on his wits - and other people's rubbish - for a decade. His speciality was slugs which were regurgitated on the carpet. Slugs have no sprinting ability and after stalking one down the garden path, he would triumphantly swallow it, bolt indoors, notice a full food bowl and puke up the slug in order to create belly-room for his Whiskas. In his years with us he managed to retrieve one sparrow (already dead) and capture two live sparrows (both dispatched and eaten). His attempt at blackbirding with our somewhat dimmer ex-feral, Affy, came to nought and he was often to be found glaring at the blackbird at beak's length over a fiercely contested breadcrust. He also fought regular battles with lawn daisies, neatly decapitating every one he found in order to avoid a repeat of the embarrassing "Scrapper looks cute in a daisy chain" episode.

Scrapper: two years' tally: slugs (numerous), two live sparrows, one dead sparrow and several dozen daisies.

Affy was Scrapper's apprentice. She preferred to retrieve bits of bread and long leaves from kniphofia plants. The longest serving feline in the household, her tally over almost 11 years included several frogs (all bar one returned unharmed, the other one found too late and too dried out), several sparrows, a suicidal starling (same one twice), a blackbird (hidden behind hi-fi for an entire week until we finally located it by the putrid odour), a baby blackbird (released unharmed) and a very small mouse which she wanted to keep as a pet. Then there was the kitten from down the road who ventured into the cat flap. Affy and Sappho played ping-pong with it up and down the hallway until I rescued it. She was scared of butterflies and believe me, here in Essex we get some amazingly aggressive Small Tortoiseshells and out Cabbage Whites have real attitude.

The baby blackbird was an interesting case of predation. Brought in alive, it was returned to the garden where the father collected it (the mother having been found putrefying behind our hi-fi) while Affy was shut in the downstairs loo. The next day we found her head to head with a shrieking father blackbird while baby blackbird cowered between them. Affy was shut in the loo while father blackbird fed his offspring and departed. A little later and baby blackbird somehow ended up in the garage. Affy took one look at it and immediately ran into the loo waiting for us to shut the door! By now she understood that this was one bird which was out of bounds. For several years she allowed that bird to fly in the open back door, help itself to a beakful of cat food and fly off with it.

Her preferred hunting method was to run full tilt through a clattering cat flap and end up sat in the middle of the lawn wondering where the birds had gone. Meanwhile, the birds laughed at her from the treetops. I like to think that the ones she caught had fallen out of the tree while splitting their sides laughing.

Affy: 10.5 years' tally: 4 frogs, 1 starling (twice), 2 blackbirds (one released), 5 or 6 sparrows, 1 very small mouse, 1 young cat, uncountable pieces of bread (with preference for garlic naan), kniphofia leaves, my ankles (claws sheathed, but annoying to shake a 14lb cat off of your ankles at 3 a.m.)

Geriatrics Holly, Tulip, Archie, Kitty 2, Sheila and Tinker caught nothing in their time with us though elderly Tinker was rumoured to have been a "good hunter in his day". Sappho showed interest in tweeting things, but was so laid back about the whole predator/prey thing that birds sometimes picked up loose bits of fur from her while she dozed in the garden. It was like watching oxpecker birds on wildebeest. Queenie - a one-eyed polydactyl oldie - made creditable efforts to stalk sparrows and all praise to the sparrows for staying put till the very last moment just to make a creaky old cat feel good about her skills.

Motley hunts small children on their way to or from the local school. This is a great arrangement since small children carry packed lunches containing things like ham, chicken slices or cheese. She becomes noticeably morose during the summer holidays and perks up again when term starts. Cindy does not hunt although she sometimes tells the birds what she would like to do to them (from the safety of the inside of a window). Cindy is into artistic shedding of fur and though it sometimes looks as if she has slaughtered something furry and white, the "carnage" turns out to be all her own fur from a marathon grooming session. This follows in a tradition begun by Affy whose redistribution of fur around a room could make it look like "an explosion in a cat factory".

I am aware of other cats catching used teabags and underwear from the washing line, but have not included them here. I'm sure my own cats provide a representative enough example of what the free-roaming British domestic moggy catches. From these eleven cats, I will now extrapolate the hunting habits of the entire feline population of Britain. Don't laugh - my sample size may be slightly smaller than that of the Mammal Society, but I have at least studied these cats over a prolonged period of time, not a scant few months. Like them, I will not differentiate between prey killed by cat, prey liberated by owner and already dead prey retrieved by opportunist cat.

In any one year (give or take a bit of rounding up or down for ease of arithmetic), eleven cats caught: 600 human ankles, 24 daisy heads, 10 slugs, 10 pieces bread, 2 sparrows, 1.5 dogs, 0.5 frogs, 0.2 starlings, 0.1 mouse, 0.1 neighbour's cat. Meaning that one cat caught 54 ankles, 2.2 daisy heads, 1 slug, 1 piece of bread, 0.2 sparrows, 0.15 dogs, 0.05 frogs, 0.02 starlings, 0.01 mice, 0.01 neighbour's cat.

There are approximately 7 million domestic cats in Britain and another 1 million or so ferals. 10% of pet cats are indoor-only pets, at least 10% are too young, old, ill or idle to hunt and a similar number are in cat shelters at any point in time so I'll call it a round 7 million. My figures indicate that only 3 out of 11 cats (about a quarter of the cat population) actually catch anything. What do those 7 million cats catch in the course of a single year? The "Alternative Cat Predation Survey" is proud to announce that in 12 months, Britains approximately 7 million pet cats catch:

378,000,000 human ankles - no surprise to most owners.
15,400,000 daisy heads.
7,000,000 slugs
7,000,000 pieces of bread
1,400,000 sparrows
1,050,000 dogs
350,000 frogs
140,000 starlings
70,000 mice
70, 000 neighbour's cats (although they might have been invited in for supper)

These results might come as a bit of a surprise, but you can't argue with statistics. Pardon? What was it you just said about using statistics like a drunk uses a lamp-post - for support rather than illumination? You've been reading dodgy Australian foregone-conclusion anti-cat surveys again haven't you?