Outdoors: Wildcat numbers are low but experts are fighting tooth and claw to save the Scottish species

The Scottish wildcat is often portrayed as being all snarl and teeth, back hunched and ears flattened, spitting out furious defiance.

The reality, of course, is less dramatic, for its behaviour is largely similar to a domestic cat as it goes about its daily rounds, padding softly through the bracken and grass with not a hint of a scowl, pausing now and again to listen for the telltale rustle of a field vole.

But while it may be benign in behaviour, there is real drama unfolding around its survival status in Scotland, with the wildcat now teetering on the brink of extinction.

One estimate has put current numbers at only 400, barely enough to sustain a viable population - although it is difficult to accurately census numbers, given its scarcity and elusive habits.

Sustained persecution from the 19th century until the First World War had already put the wildcat in a precarious position, hanging on in a few parts of the Highlands.

Now these outposts face an onslaught from hybridisation with domestic (especially feral) cats threatening the genetic integrity of the species.

A conference for wildlife experts was held in Aviemore in 2008 to determine ways to ensure its survival.

As well as hybridisation, the conference concluded that other major threats include the spread of fatal diseases by domestic cats, and confusion in identifying wildcats during predator control activities.

A partnership of organisations including the Cairngorms National Park Authority, Forestry Commission Scotland, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Scottish Gamekeepers Association and Scottish Natural Heritage, bolstered by a wider circle of supporting organisations, designed a conservation project for wildcats in the Cairngorms National Park, one of the animal's last strongholds.

This initiative is now underway and, says, project manager Dr David Hetherington, a key aim is to raise awareness amongst the general public of the vulnerable situation facing the wildcat.

"Wildcats are shy, nocturnal, rare and difficult to see, so most people will have never seen one," he says. "If people become more aware of their existence and plight, the greater chance we have of saving the animal from extinction."

The other main component of the project is hands-on conservation, in particular working with vets and encouraging cat owners in the National Park to neuter and vaccinate pets to prevent hybridisation and spread of fatal diseases to wildcats such as feline leukaemia virus.

"Of particular concern are feral cats on farms," says Dr Hetherington. "Farmers like these cats around their outbuildings because they are useful mousers, however, by working alongside local vets we are encouraging farmers to speak to their local Cat Protection branch who can arrange for the cats to be trapped, neutered and released back onto the farm again. We are also working closely with gamekeepers to ensure that predator control is wildcat-friendly and by using their knowledge to help monitor wildcat populations in the park."

In addition, a number of camera traps have been set around the park to try and determine the size of the population and whether the animals photographed are pure-bred or hybrids. So far, several cats have been captured on film.

"Hopefully, we will learn much more about the population in the National Park by pulling together all the camera trap data, as well as sightings made by the public.

"We can then develop a better informed conservation strategy at both a local and national scale," states Dr Hetherington.

"The wildcat is a truly iconic animal and some Scottish clans have adopted the animal as their symbol because it represents independence and an indomitable spirit found in our remote landscapes.

"These are desperate times for the wildcat but I am hopeful we can tap into the enthusiasm of the Scottish public to save this marvellous animal."

www.highlandtiger.com

This article was first published in The Scotsman, 5 March, 2011

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