Wednesday, 10 August 2011
The History of Norwegian Forest Cats
The Faerie Cats of Scandinavia
If you have ever met a Norwegian Forest Cat "in the fur", you will realise that they are very solid and real. But in their native land they have long been associated with the supernatural, simply because they were often seen flitting amongst the trees, beautiful and elegant as well as large and robust. As early as the 16thcentury, Norwegian folk tales mention cats who looked like today's Norwegian Forest Cats. For a long time people believed them to be a mix of lynx and cat, and they were often referred to as "Huldrekatt" which is Norwegian for "faerie cat". Norse tales mention huge cats with lynx-like ear-tufts, and the goddess Freya's carriage was said to be drawn by a pair of white male cats from the forest.
Although their origins are swathed in the mists of centuries past, it is clear that this is a very natural breed, and unlike many pedigree cats the appearance and character of the Norwegian Forest Cat has been fashioned by nature, not by man. It is not surprising to learn that these resourceful animals have long been the companions of isolated Norwegian farmers, in a mutually beneficial relationship. When Norwegians go out in their native wilderness they can still sometimes catch a glimpse of a wild Forest Cat, although most of them have sensibly settled amongst the homesteads and fishing villages which enable them to thrive. Their long association with mankind means that they are also quite prepared to be friendly. In fact, those that live as family pets are exceptionally affectionate and responsive. They have been welcomed by the natives of Scandinavia for much longer than the native British cats have been tolerated in the UK. Maybe this long association with mankind is why Norwegian Forest Cats are so fond of human company.
Where did these magnificent creatures originally come from? As there are no small wild cats indigenous to Scandinavia, they must have originally come from further afield. (There are lynxes, but these cannot successfully mate with Norwegian Forest Cats.) Looking back to the Vikings gives us a clue. A hoard of gold was deposited at Hon, southwest of Oslo, in the second half of the ninth century, containing Arabic, Byzantine, English and Frankish coins, together with large neck-rings from Russia, which illustrates just how widely travelled the Vikings were.
We all know that ships need cats in order to control the rodent population. So it is almost certain that these doughty Viking sailors took on board cats encountered all over their world. In fact, many of the colours found in Norwegian Forest Cat populations relate to colours common in Turkey but rare across the rest of Europe, another pointer to the Vikings having brought cats across their trade routes from the Byzantine East. It is worth noting here that several Byzantine emperors had Scandinavian guards, known as the Jaeringer, so there was a lot of commerce between the two nations. In particular, the "Snow Cats"(pure white Forest Cats) are reminiscent of the elegant silky-white Angoras from Turkey. There would also have been Russian Blue-type animals with their plush grey coats; ticked ancestors of today’s Abyssinians from North Africa; and, of course, ordinary European moggies in shades of silvery brown tabby or black and white. Spain probably contributed the tortoiseshell variation (the Vikings spent some time in Cadiz and Córdoba –nowhere with a navigable river was safe from their adventuring).
It has sometimes been suggested that Forest Cats may have partly originated from Scottish Wild Cats too, but I think this unlikely as the Scottish cats are impossible to handle right up to the present day, even when hand-reared from birth. I’m sure that the Vikings would have chosen cats with as trouble-free a character as possible to join them on their travels. Whatever their place of birth, when these cats were brought home to Scandinavia they would have had a harsh environment to contend with, so would gradually have evolved into the large-boned, heavy-coated, many-coloured animals which we know and love today. There are still "real" albeit unregistered Forest Cats living on farms, or waiting on quaysides for the return of fishermen, throughout Norway- just as cats do the world over.
It is probably this very melting-pot which has given rise to the exceptional hybrid vigour exhibited throughout the breed. We’ll have to make sure that, with the luxuries of warmth and readily available food now afforded to them, we never forget that they should remain truly rugged! The important thing is that even today and beyond breeders should ensure that every Norwegian Forest Cat born should look like a Forest Cat, behave like a Forest Cat, and be equipped to survive in its native country by means of size, coat quality and intelligence - even if in reality he or she is destined for a life of luxury by the radiator.