Shooting & Fishing: Searching for the elusive wildcat

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I have been closely studying the behaviour of Gonzo our ginger cat and decided he is probably one of the 400 remaining Scottish wildcats whose existence we must now report to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

He is the wrong colour and likes having his tummy tickled but apart from that he appears to exhibit many wildcat traits; bushy tail, stripes, a nocturnal nature and the eyes of a killer.

SNH is very keen to learn the whereabouts of our remaining wildcat population and has asked walkers in the Highlands and more remote bits of the country to keep an eye out for remnant members of Felis silvestris grampia.

It turns out you won't see wildcats draped leopard-like on overhanging crags waiting for a stray fawn. They're more likely to be skulking on the edges of farm and woodland where there's usually a good supply of bunnies.

SNH has realised it had better do something about the wildcat under European legislation which says member states have a duty to ensure endangered species don't just disappear. A population of 400, and some of those in captivity, is perilously close to extinction, and hence the survey to see what there really is out there.

It is pretty hard to identify a real wildcat. There has been so much interbreeding of feral moggies that they can be quite easily mistaken for the genuine article, especially in half light when they might be hysterically identified as the Beast of Bodmin, the Perth Puma or the Larbert Lynx.

So later this year Tooth and Claw, the wildlife education organisation on Speyside that tries to take a level headed view about predators, will announce details of just how we should go about looking for and recording wildcats.

It is going to be tricky, as everyone acknowledges that wildcats don't pop up from behind bushes and wave: "Me, me . . . over here." They are quiet and wily and keep well out of the way. So don't bother planning a wildcat-spotting picnic with all the family.

The people most likely to see wildcats, who probably know where they are anyway, are members of the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association who are going to take part in the survey.

This is a bit of an irony as gamekeepers are, of course, the people usually accused of bringing the breed to the brink of extinction. Cats of all types –domestic, feral or wild – like a crunchy little grouse chick or pheasant poult to play with, so they have never been very popular in the keepering world. It's a bit of a turn up that keepers are now the people best placed to ensure restoration of the species.

At the same time, SNH is going to have to be quite nice to the keepering fraternity if it wants its cooperation. If I were a keeper with what looked like a wildcat on my patch I would be pretty wary of reporting it to SNH.

The agency has acquired a reputation among some land managers and keepers for taking an inflexibly urban attitude to land management. A keeper or shoot owner might just be disposed to keep quiet about a wildcat on his or her patch rather than have to put up with SNH through the visitations and directives. A few assurances wouldn't go amiss, I suspect.

But you do sort of wonder if this isn't all a precursor to reintroducing the European Lynx, which will surely follow the beaver and the wolf. I shall consult Gonzo, who is usually very sound on these matters.