A new action plan to halt the decline of the Scottish wildcat has been launched.
The blueprint aims to reverse the fall in numbers of the species - dubbed the “Highland Tiger” - within six years.
While there are no official figures for how many wildcats are left in Scotland, some reports have said there could be as few as 35 individual animals in the wild.
Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse said there was a “legal and moral obligation to try and conserve the species”.
By 2019, the project aims to have identified and secured at least five stable groups of Scottish wildcats in the wild.
It will work to boost awareness of the threat the creatures face from cross-breeding with domestic and feral cats, and ensure cat owners living in wildcat “hotspots” understand the importance of having their animals neutered and vaccinated.
It also aims to develop a better understanding of the number of wildcats living in the wild in Scotland and their distribution.
Efforts will be targeted in those areas which support the most viable wildcat populations.
Meanwhile, a conservation breeding programme to reinforce the species in the future is being developed by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and the Aspinall Foundation.
Those involved in the £2 million project are seeking funding for it, with the Heritage Lottery Fund having indicated the scheme meets its criteria by giving it a “first round pass” to a cash award of £873,000.
Mr Wheelhouse said: “The Scottish wildcat is an iconic species that is emblematic of the wild parts of Scotland. As a society we have a legal and moral obligation to try and conserve the species, so that it continues to be part of our natural heritage for generations to come.
“Clearly great concern has been expressed to me and my predecessors about the decline in Scottish wildcat numbers and, while it is difficult to accurately estimate numbers for what is such an elusive animal, we have now set ourselves the target of halting the decline of the wildcat by the end of the decade and in the longer term we would hope that the steps we will take can help this marvellous animal stage a recovery.
“The Scottish Wildcat Action Plan builds on the good work already undertaken and existing expertise and understanding of the Scottish wildcat. The success of the plan will depend not just on the project partners but on the uptake by individuals, such as gamekeepers, farmers, and, crucially, we will rely heavily on the assistance of Scotland’s cat owners in preventing hybridisation of the species.”
Scottish Natural Heritage is co-ordinating the work, which Ron Macdonald, the organisation’s head of policy and advice, described as an “effective partnership of many quite separate organisations”.
He said: “We are all committed to conserving this rare and elusive species. And though we do not currently have reliable estimates for the number of wildcats remaining in the wild, everyone agrees there is now some urgency to address the threats they face.
“We recognise this, and work is already under way to identify the wildcat priority areas and to find out more about the genetic make-up of wild-living cat populations.”
Rob Ogden, from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, said: “Continuing to conserve populations in the wild is the priority, but as a safety net we want to develop a breeding programme designed to reinforce the natural population through the release of cats fully prepared for life in the wild.
“Of course before we start thinking about releasing animals we need to first address the factors that are currently threatening wild populations.”
Colin McLean, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Scotland, said: “The plight of the Scottish wildcat is well known and has now reached a critical stage. With this action plan and the Heritage Lottery Fund support announced today, we hope communities across the country will be inspired and empowered to safeguard the existence of this rare and elusive creature.”