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Saving Scotland’s Wildcats

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Logo: Saving Wildcats

By Helena Parsons, Saving Wildcats Conservation Project Officer (Outreach and Engagement)

Wildcat looking up at the camera as it starts to snow
Wildcat in the Saving Wildcats conservation breeding for release centre (Saving Wildcats)

Now considered one of our most iconic native animals, European wildcats crossed from the Continent into Britain after the end of the last Ice Age. Once widespread throughout the country the species is now on the brink of extinction in Scotland. A sad history of habitat loss, persecution and, more recently, interbreeding with domestic cats, has forced the Highland tiger to a point where the population is no longer viable, meaning there are too few of them left to form a self-sustaining population.

Without urgent action, wildcats will be lost forever from our landscapes.

Wildcats became extinct from England and Wales in the 1800s. Their range became significantly limited by changes in land management and intense predator control, particularly during the Victorian era when wildcats were both hunted for sport and for their perceived status as a threat to sport shooting. While their population expanded post World War I, they suffered significantly from hybridisation, also known as interbreeding, with domestic cats. Although wildcats became legally protected in 1988, research in the following years highlighted how severely hybridised the Scottish wildcat population had become. Significant conservation action was deemed necessary to protect the species.

Aerial view of the conservation breeding centre
Saving Wildcats conservation breeding for release centre (Saving Wildcats/James Shooter)

From 2009 to 2019, several conservation projects focused on wildcat conservation in Scotland, including The Cairngorms Wildcat Project and Scottish Wildcat Action, the latter of which focused on six priority areas across the country. Conservation activities focused on camera trapping research, data collection, threat reduction, education and conservation breeding. Findings showed the population of wildcats in Scotland had severely declined and an external report from the IUCN was commissioned. This report concluded the wildcat population was now considered non-viable and recommended breeding individuals for release into the wild to restore the population.

These recommendations led to the formation of Saving Wildcats, an EU LIFE programme funded partnership project dedicated to Scottish wildcat conservation and recovery, aiming to prevent the extinction of wildcats in Scotland by breeding and releasing them into the wild. Led by the Royal Zoological Society for Scotland (RZSS), this project began releasing wildcats into the Cairngorms Connect landscape of the Cairngorms National Park earlier this summer.

The project began in 2020 and has spent a significant amount of time preparing for these releases, with the formation of Britain's first large-scale dedicated conservation breeding for release centre for wildcats in a quiet area away from visitors at Highland Wildlife Park. At this centre a team of dedicated animal keepers, vets and conservation scientists are responsible for breeding wildcats and preparing them for a challenging life in the wild.

Conservation Officer giving a talk and holding up a map to a group of school children
Saving Wildcats Conservation Project Officer giving a wildcat talk to primary school children at Highland Wildlife Park (Saving Wildcats)

The project began by bringing wildcats from the UK’s conservation breeding programme to its newly built centre and began assessing the suitability of release sites in the Cairngorms National Park. This included conducting ecological surveys, assessing prey numbers and communicating with landowners and gamekeepers to identify ways of working together for the benefit of wildcats. The team conducted a variety of community outreach and engagement events to build relationships with key stakeholders, working with local communities to understand how best people can benefit from the presence of wildcats.

Saving Wildcats is as much about people as it is about wildcats, helping to boost local economies through wildlife tourism as well as supporting longer term employment.

The project began a dedicated programme of Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return (TNVR), a humane and non-lethal method of controlling feral domestic cat populations, given the significant threat posed to wildcats both through hybridisation and disease transfer.

In 2022, the project announced their first successful breeding season, with 22 kittens born to five litters. In the wild, wildcats are typically solitary, only staying with their mothers until about six to eight months old. To mimic natural behaviours, these wildcat kittens were removed from their parents at the end of 2022 and beginning of 2023 and moved into pre-release enclosures. Constructed by staff and volunteers, these large and natural enclosures are designed to help prepare the cats for the challenges of life in the wild.

A litter of Wildcat kittens in a conservation pen
Wildcat kittens born in 2022 (Saving Wildcats)

At the beginning of 2023 the project was granted its translocation licence from NatureScot. In Scotland, a licence is issued by NatureScot to approve translocations. The application process covers many topics that must be considered before movements take place, including animal welfare, site suitability, public and landowner support and any biological risks. Details of ongoing monitoring and management are crucial, as well as evidence of community consultation and outreach. The licence is in place to ensure the Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations is being met. The Saving Wildcats translocation licence can be viewed on the project’s website.

In June 2023, wildcats bred in captivity were released in Britain for the first time. Prior to release each wildcat was fitted with a GPS-radio collar, made of a soft silicon material. Tracking the wildcats via these collars will help us understand more about the behaviour and ecology of wild living wildcats in Scotland.

Conservation translocations have significant risks and, in the case of this project, include road traffic, prey fluctuations, interbreeding (hybridisation) with, and disease transfer from domestic feral cats, extreme weather events, persecution and human disturbance. To maximise the probability of success, the project works with international conservation experts in behavioural ecology and conservation genetics, specialist veterinarians, social scientists and ecologists. However, we are prepared for the sad reality that some of the released wildcats will not survive.

A wildcat sitting in the grass with a GPS collar on
Wildcat in Saving Wildcats prerelease enclosures having been fitted with a GPS radio collar prior to release (Saving Wildcats)

Although we cannot eliminate the chance of every adversity, as human activity is responsible for the wildcat's decline, we have a responsibility to take action to protect them.

Every translocation increases our knowledge of wildcat behaviour and ecology. It is our responsibility to make use of this, so subsequent releases have a better chance of succeeding than the ones preceding them.

The project plans to share further updates about this year’s releases towards the end of summer. If you’d like to be kept up to date and receive information about wildcat conservation in Scotland, you can sign up to the project’s mailing list.

Find out more about how to support us at www.savingwildcats.org.uk/support-us


Led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (registered charity number SC004064) in collaboration with NatureScot, Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), The Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA), Norden’s Ark, Consejería de Sostenibilidad, Medio Ambiente y Economía Azul de la Junta de Andalucía and with releases being conducted with the support of Cairngorms Connect, Saving Wildcats is supported by the LIFE programme of the European Union.

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Posted On: 01/08/2023

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