With altitudes ranging from 1,200 feet near the top of the mountain to a low point of 500 feet, this predominantly steep and hilly natural area features a broad range of habitats. Wildcat Mountain supports a rich variety of plants and animals, including a few coastal and higher-Appalachian species approaching their geographic limits in northern Virgina.
Typical wildlife of the region flourish here, especially red and gray fox, bobcat, deer, skunk, gray and fox squirrel, raccoon, and small mammals. Black bears wander through occasionally, and 186 species of birds have been recorded in the preserve.
Although entirely wooded now, Wildcat Mountain has a long history of human use. Aside from patches of mature oak-hickory forests, which were only lightly logged, the preserve was cleared for farms as early as the 18th Century. Old stone walls still meander through the preserve, marking boundary lines and former fields.
Many of the homesteads were abandoned after the Civil War, although some farming and considerable logging continued into the 20th Century. Much of Wildcat Mountain Farm was then converted to an apple orchard. However, all logging and farming ceased on the western slope in the 1940s.
Before cultivation or extensive logging, most of the mountain was probably a forest of beech, oak and American chestnut. However, in the 1920s, a devastating blight killed most of the chestnuts. Their loss brought economic disaster to many rural people who depended on the sale or use of the nuts, wood and bark (for tannin). The impact on wildlife was significant as well, as chestnuts were a major food source.
Wildcat Mountain Natural Area was donated to The Nature Conservancy in 1961. At that time, the intent of the donors and the Conservancy was to create a nature sanctuary, and the legal deed conveying the property was very specific in how the preserve would be managed:
“Only research organizations, study groups, conservation groups, schools and bird and wildlife societies shall be permitted use of the property, and then only for the purposes of bona fide study and research in flora, fauna and geology.”
Wildcat Mountain Natural Area was closed to public visitation in 2017. After discussions with the family that generously donated the property to the Conservancy, we agreed that the current level of use was inconsistent with the terms of the donation.