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Wildcats in Scotland

One Voice for Animals UK Guest Blog by SavingWildCats

Wildcat kittens 2023

European wildcats came over from the Continent around 9000 years ago. Once widespread across the UK, 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. Without urgent action, wildcats will be lost forever from our shores.

What becomes the domestic cat arrives on the British mainland in around 500BCE, they live in harmony for a few thousand years until a census in 1880 when a combination of changes in land use, deforestation and increased intensity of predator control in Victorian era and the Wild Cat is extinct in England or Wales and are only found in the Far North of Scotland.

Around 1915-1980, there is less gamekeeping activity meaning less persecution. This is also the start of a significant change in land use - reafforestation. Wildcats start to range further afield and meet more domestic cats as they expand their range.

From the 1970s it is recognised that the few remaining wildcats have been interbreeding with and catching diseases from feral cats which is considered the biggest threat to the survival of wildcats in Scotland.

differences between Wildcat and domestic cat

In 1988, wildcats are legally protected, and it is now illegal to kill or disturb a wildcat

During 1990-2000, important research on the ecology of all wild living cats is conducted, including wildcats, hybrids and feral cats, highlighting the degree of mixing. On the back of the research, wildcats become a European Protected Species and they are found to be on the brink of extinction.

In 2005, a classification id chart is created to help distinguish it from other cats to protect the wildcat. It is based on their markings, with the distinctive bushy tail with black rings and a blunt tip.

Pelage id for Wildcat project

A pilot project is launched between 2009-2012, to trial conservation action in an area in the Cairngorms where cat with the distinctive wildcat markings have been sighted. These findings were used to develop the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan in 2013, which unites a large group of leading organisations and experts keen to help save the wildcats in the wild.

By 2015, Scottish Wildcat Action launches with four project officers working in six priority areas. Conservation activities focus on wildcat camera trapping research, data collection, threat reduction (eg. Trap Neuter Vaccinate and Release), education and conservation breeding.

In 2019, a report published by the International Union for Conservation of Natures Cat Specialist Group concluded that there was no longer a viable wildcat population living in the wild in Scotland with hybridisation with domestic cats the major threat to their survival. They advised that the species extinction was imminent without carefully carried out wildcat releases. The project recruited a dedicated team based at the Highland Wildlife Park near Aviemore where they start a recovery programme including the UK’s first conservation breeding for release centre.

The centre will provide facilities for breeding, veterinary care, remote monitoring and training to prepare wildcats for release into Cairngorms National Park.

Over the next six years, RZSS will lead the Saving Wildcats project in collaboration with NatureScot, Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA), as well as European partners Norden’s Ark from Sweden, which specialises in the restoration and conservation of Sweden’s native wildlife, and Spain’s Consejería de Sostenibilidad, Medio Ambiente y Economía Azul de la Junta de Andalucía which led the successful recovery of the Iberian lynx, once the planet's most endangered cat species. Releases are being conducted with the support of Cairngorms Connect.

Scottish Wildcat Action Logo

After the centre was built in a quiet area away from visitors at the park, the team welcomed 22 wildcat kittens in a very successful first breeding season in 2022. The kittens are growing up fast and getting ready for the challenges of life in the wild with the first releases planned for later this year (2023) in the Cairngorms National Park.

Wildcat kittens 2023


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