A Wonderful Wildcat Experience
By James Walker
As I pulled into the town square in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, on a dark and surprisingly mild December night, a sense of realisation kicked in. It was time to find out if the gamble would pay off. I had left a permanent ranger role which, despite providing useful experience and having great colleagues, felt to have stagnated in terms of development opportunities, to intern with Scottish Wildcat Action for three months. I dreamed of being able to work on conservation projects, combining research, people engagement and practical conservation to achieve long term objectives and this seemed to be a perfect first step.
After seeing the advert for the posts online I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t apply. So after forgoing a social life for a weekend to prepare my application and many hours put into reading and watching anything on wildcats I could find, it was time for the interview. This was done over the phone and I felt cautiously optimistic by the end. It took a while to sink in after getting the call to say I had a place, but once it did the excitement and trepidation began building.
Fast forward to my first morning and, after a night in the youth hostel which would be my home for the majority of the three months, I met my supervising project officer Emma Rawling and we headed off to set up camera traps with a local volunteer, a process repeated over the next few days. On two days of the training week I went out with the priority areas manager, Dr Roo Campbell, to set up cameras in a promising area of forest. It was an excellent opportunity to learn from an expert and gain lots of advice to put into practice over the rest of the survey.
After the festive break, I was back up and raring to go. The first couple of weeks consisted of setting up new camera trap stations myself and with several local volunteers. It was a pleasant surprise when the first camera trap set before Christmas that I checked had pictures of a potential wildcat! I say potential wildcat as each individual is scored on key pelage (markings) features, which have proven to be a good guideline against the genetic purity test. With an obvious hybrid cat on another, as well as other exciting wildlife such as Pine Marten, it certainly made for a rewarding day.
Trips to Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park to learn about the wider project work were a real highlight. In Edinburgh, we met the communications coordinator for the project, Vicky MacDonald, to learn about how best to spread the news and raise awareness of wildcat conservation, as well as seeing the zoo’s Koalas and Giant Pandas! At Highland Wildlife Park, David Barclay, the cat conservation project officer, showed us the captive wildcats at the park and provided an insightful explanation of the conservation breeding programme. The visit also provided an opportunity to meet the other project officers and interns, sharing experiences from the survey and suggestions for future ones.
Office work involved downloading and organising images and putting survey data into a spreadsheet. We also had a pelage scoring day looking at all the cats and coming to a collective score for each, fuelled by large amounts of tea and cake! In the final two weeks I produced an identification guide of all cats found on the survey, giving each cat a nickname and code with notes on behaviour, unique features and locations recorded.
After my time as an intern had finished, I was given the opportunity to help present at an event for the local volunteers in Huntly. It was heartening to see everyone’s enthusiasm for the project and what a great success the survey had been. It definitely made up for the following mornings failed 3 am dash to see Capercaillie at Abernethy!
So what did I gain from the experience? It confirmed my long held suspicion that mammal conservation is the area I really want to specialise in, which has made picking the right masters course for the near future much easier. Experience of mammal tracking, camera trap surveys, image analysis and data work will be invaluable for the future. I learnt about what makes a successful conservation project, particularly in terms of community involvement and what new skills and experience I will need to pick up in the next few years. Overall, I feel privileged to have played a small part in such an amazing project and working with such knowledgeable, helpful and committed people made the experience all the greater. Since my internship I have been on a paid contract protecting nesting Little Terns which has added more scientific monitoring and people engagement experience. I would highly recommend volunteering with Scottish Wildcat Action to anyone!
Scottish Wildcat Action is the first national project to save the highly endangered Scottish wildcat from extinction. It is a partnership involving over 20 organisations, including, Scottish Natural Heritage, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), Cairngorms National Park Authority, Forestry Commission Scotland, National Museums Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. It is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund and Scottish Government, as well as its partners.