Saving Wildcats – the road to wildcat recovery in Scotland
By David Barclay – Ex-situ Conservation Manager, Saving Wildcats
Wildcats in Scotland (Felis silvestris silvestris) are one of the UK’s most iconic, and most endangered, species. Once widespread across the UK, estimates now suggest only one hundred individuals may remain, and all in Scotland.
In 2019, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Cat Specialist Group carried out an independent review of Scotland’s wild living population and confirmed our field data, the wildcat population is not sustainable and should be regarded as non-viable. Put simply, long-term conservation of wildcats would no longer be possible with in-situ actions alone. A well-managed captive breeding programme was crucial if we were to offer wildcats their ninth lifeline.
Following this report, and as a second phase of the national conservation project Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA), the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) has since been successful in securing a six-year £3.2 million grant from the European Union LIFE programme. Led by RZSS, this new European partnership project, Saving Wildcats (SWAforLIFE), is an exciting development for wildcat conservation. Dedicated to wildcat restoration in the Scottish Highlands, this is the first wildcat recovery project in the UK that focuses on conservation breeding for release. Bringing together project partners Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Forestry & Land Scotland (FLS), Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA), Nordens Ark (Sweden) and Junta de Andalucía (Spain), Saving Wildcats provides, arguably, the last hope for the wildcat in Scotland.
The word ‘partnership’ is critical in the Saving Wildcats project. RZSS, SNH, FLS, and CNPA were all key partners in the previous SWA conservation project and have been committed to wildcat conservation for many years. Each partner brings a unique skill set to the project, from captive population management, habitat management, landowner engagement, advocacy to government liaison. In addition to the Scottish partners, Saving Wildcats has welcomed two European partners, Nordens Ark and Junta de Andalucía. Nordens Ark are a leading Swedish zoo specialising in native species restoration, while Junta de Andalucía are the regional government administration of Andalucía and have been responsible for delivering the highly successful EU LIFE funded Iberian lynx recovery project in Spain and Portugal. This collection of specialist skills, expertise in wildcat conservation and proven track record of native species recovery is crucial to Saving Wildcats.
Like most conservation projects following an evidence based and best practice approach, Saving Wildcats has been through a rigorous project development process. Our plan details the entire six-year project and includes key sections such as description of project area, objectives, technical description of actions, budget, sustainability of results, risk analysis, stakeholders, partnership agreements, key performance indicators, replicability and socioeconomic impact. Above all, the project plan provides a clear foundation for the delivery of key actions from the start whilst providing flexibility for adaptive management throughout the project lifespan.
The project’s key actions, i.e. those that will have the greatest impact on conserving wildcats, can be categorised into four distinct stages - preparatory, conservation, project management and dissemination of results. Each stage plays a critical role in the delivery of the project and involves a wide range of job profiles in order to capture the necessary skills, expertise, and capacity.
The preparatory actions for this project focus on collection of baseline data, infrastructure, and relationships needed for the following stages. These include preliminary release site assessments, construction of a dedicated conservation breeding for release centre, establishing key stakeholder networks, public engagement, and the development of a robust management framework.
Conservation actions focus on the implementation and delivery of activities that contribute directly to the conservation, threat mitigation, and recovery of wildcats in Scotland. For this project, these include wildcat breeding, pre-release training, feral cat trap neuter & release (TNVR), genetic analysis and the release of wildcats to the wild.
The final two stages, project management and dissemination of results, are more desk based but still critical to the overall success of the project. They include the development of best practice guidance, long term strategic planning, project management, tracking and review, and the implementation of environmental sustainability principles.
It goes without saying that with such a wide range of actions and long-term plans for both project delivery and sustainability the project requires a large team comprising of a vast diversity of specialisms and expertise. The field-based elements require staff with a proven track record of field monitoring surveys, mapping skills, public engagement, camera trapping, and GPS tracking, underpinned by an extensive knowledge of the target species. The ex-situ (animal management) team, need a very different group of skills that focus on animal husbandry, animal welfare, veterinary experience, training and enrichment, experience of working with cat species, population management, animal observation, animal handling and data collection and management. The project management elements require staff with an extensive track record of working at a senior management level within the environmental sector, budget management and tracking, delivery of results to strict deadlines, coordinating and engaging partner relationships, all whilst ensuring effective performance from other team leaders. Construction, administration, and outreach teams also play a vital role in the success of the project. Several positions including animal management staff, field project officers and veterinary staff are yet to be appointed and will be advertised over the coming year. To stay updated on these exciting opportunities visit rzss.org.uk/job-opportunities/
Saving Wildcats is a project working to significant scale, and it goes far beyond the core objective of conserving a single endangered species. It creates opportunities for employment, socioeconomic benefits to local communities, develops our understanding and connection with nature while highlighting the importance of captive populations and zoos.
Wildcats are a critical component of our wild Scottish landscape and ecosystems, it is not too late to save them, but the clock is ticking fast. The Saving Wildcats project offers real hope for the survival of our last native cat species as well as an incredible opportunity to develop a new model of endangered species restoration in the UK.
Find out more at Rzss.org.uk/wildcats
More from Royal Zoological Society of Scotland