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Wildcats: Back from the Brink…

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

Madelaine Stannard journeys through the conservation history of the Scottish wildcat, and reports on the beginnings of a landmark translocation programme, starting this June.

It stalks through long grasses, curls its claws around its rodent prey. The long, striped tail that stretches out behind its body is thick. It’s not a tiger, but a Scottish wildcat, Britain’s most endangered mammal. In fact, this particular subspecies of the European wildcat is more endangered than the tiger itself, its far-removed and altogether more ferocious cousin.

When the British Isles were connected to continental Europe during the early Holocene, by a landmass somewhat ironically called Doggerland, the European wildcat colonised Britain, making its home within our landscapes. Now, thanks to a range of threats over the last few hundred years, this elusive species is restricted to just parts of Scotland, where it clings on in strands.

By the late 19th century, the wildcats of course faced no natural predators in Britain - the grey wolf was hunted to extinction in the 17th century, and the brown bear disappeared from the British Isles during the medieval period. But, it was a different kind of predator they endured, one notorious for inflicting all kinds of damage on the natural wonders it came into contact with - the Victorian.

Changes to how we used land, and new means of predator control, ensured that throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, the Scottish wildcat struggled to maintain its hold on the British Isles. It saw a range retraction into only the far north-west of Scotland, where it favours woodland edges, in the margins of mountains and moorlands.

Scottish Wildcat kitten (left) and adult Hilda (right) at the British Wildlife Centre (partner zoo of RZS and Saving Wildcats Recovery), 2021.

Image Credit: Madelaine Stannard.

Fast-forward to a post-WWI Britain, where the Scottish Forestry Commission marked a new era of regeneration, and the wildcat population began to recover. Fast-forward even further, to the present-day, where the Scottish wildcat yet again faces a different kind of threat, one that this time does not have an apparent end in sight.

Humankind has had a long, woven history with the domestic cat, after its origins in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, often regarded as the ‘cradle of civilisation’. The Middle Eastern wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica, eventually gave rise to Felis catus, the domestic cat that in essence is the species that all our moggies and purebred pets belong to. Felis catus did not arrive in Britain for thousands of years after the wildcat made its way here via Doggerland, but as soon as it did, for the wildcat, carnage ensued.

According to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, the domestic cat is now the single greatest threat to the Scottish wildcat, known scientifically as Felis silvestris. When domestic cats interbreed with wildcats, mixing their genes and essentially eroding the unique genetic makeup of the Critically Endangered cat, it results in genetic extinction of this once widespread species. What we are ultimately left with is a hybridised admixture of wildcat and domestic genes, meaning that the presence of the pure Scottish wildcat slips through Britain’s fingers more and more everyday, with every interaction that leads to crossbreeding.

In 2019, Saving Wildcats Action released a statement confirming there was ‘no viable wildcat population’, and that without translocation and reintroduction projects, extinction was imminent over the course of the near future. A world without wildcats is a lesser one, and it is the vital work of conservation organisations and programmes, Saving Wildcats Recovery Project being one of them, that aims to stop our world ever losing its wildcats for good.

Situated at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park, a dedicated site was established in 2020, providing a stronghold for wildcat conservation. In 2022, there were twenty-two kittens born at the centre alone, and across the breeding programme (encompassing the partner zoos and organisations that RZL pairs with), 2023 brought a record fifty-seven kittens into the programme.

Kittens born into the programme, assessed for good health and genetic quality, are eligible for release, and in a ground-breaking step for wildcat conservation, Saving Wildcats Recovery was given the go-ahead by NatureScot to begin releasing cats into undisclosed locations within Cairngorms Connect this June.

Scottish Wildcat kitten, British Wildlife Centre, 2021.

Image Credit: Madelaine Stannard.

With high hopes for the future, the team at the Saving Wildcats partnership fitted the cats with GPS collars, allowing researchers to track their movements, distributions, behaviours, but ultimately, their survival.

Many will survive - many will not. Like with any translocation, how the wildcats will respond and habituate to their new environment will entirely depend on fitness and circumstance. But the arrival of these cats into the Cairngorms, with a further fourty cats set for release over the next two years, is a positive, historic step towards a future where wildcats roam free, and numbers are restored to their former glory.

About the Author: Madelaine Stannard is a Zoology student at the University of Sheffield, with a keen interest in science communication, rewilding, carnivore ecology and endangered species. You can find her on Instagram @maddiestannardwild.

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