A MASSIVE conservation project backed by American dollars is to be launched this summer in a bold attempt to bring the Scottish wildcat back from the brink of extinction.
• The wildcat - of which there are now fewer than 400 - is found only in remote parts of north-west Scotland
Wildlife experts, scientists and volunteers are working on a 750,000 plan that they hope will save the unique creatures that have been mythologised in Highland folklore.
Almost hunted to extinction, there are now thought to be fewer than 400 Scottish wildcats left – an alarming statistic that has prompted a rescue bid that will be the UK's largest ever conservation project.
Ex-pat Scots living in the United States, who appreciate the wildcats' ancient links with their clans, have contributed tens of thousands of pounds to the project, which could run for ten years.
The first step will be setting the first of thousands of box traps in remote areas of west Scotland later this year to catch the feral cats that are interbreeding with the wildcat population. They will then be neutered to protect the genetic purity of their wild cousins.
The Texan-based Summerlee Foundation, a private grant-making organisation, has contributed cash, as has Bosack Kruger, another animal welfare foundation in the USA. Further grants have come in from the Shuman Trust in Britain and Sir Cameron Mackintosh's Mackintosh Foundation. The show business impresario has a country home near Mallaig.
The creatures, which are the only surviving members of the cat family that are native to Britain, are now found only in remote parts of Scotland. They cannot be tamed and will fight to the death to protect their young.
For centuries, their fighting spirit and independence were revered by the old Highlanders and wildcats are depicted on some clan crests including MacPherson and Mackintosh.
The key to the plan is trapping and eventually eradicating the estimated 100,000 feral or farm cats roaming the Western Highlands. These can mate with true wildcats – therefore contaminating the wildcats' genetic line.
Now that man is forbidden by law to kill the creatures, feral cats pose the greatest threat to the pure bred wildcat (felis silvestris grampia) – a beast which has lived in Scotland for two million years.
When a wildcat mates with a feral cat, the resulting litter produces so-called hybrid cats, which themselves can produce fertile offspring.
The conservation project, which is to be led by the Scottish Wildcat Association, will begin in Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point on the British mainland.
Around 100 meat-baited box traps will be laid on the remote peninsula – one of the last remaining wildcat havens.
Vets will neuter any feral cats caught to prevent them breeding with wildcats before they are released. Thousands of box traps are likely to be set across the Highlands to the West of Loch Ness and Loch Lochy.
Steve Piper, of the Scottish Wildcats Association, said: "If we can clear out all of the feral cats in an area of around 7,000 square miles, there will be only wildcats left and they will be able to recolonise their natural habitat."
Scientists have also developed a genetic test that can determine the purity of a wildcat's breeding. Later in the summer, the plan is to test the hair or blood of any surviving wildcats that are found.
The test results will give scientists a precise indication of how much work needs to be done to ensure the wildcat's survival.
"These results should give us an idea of how many are left and how badly hybridised some of them have become," Piper said.
The project's lead researcher is the American scientist Dr Jim Sanderson, a member of the Small Cat Conservation Alliance and the Feline Conservation Federation, and who is regarded as one of the world's leading field researchers of wildlife with a speciality in small wildcats.
Outside Scotland, he has been involved in tracking rare animals such as the Andean Mountain Cat, the Bay Cat and the Fishing Cat.
Sanderson said: "The Scottish wildcat is the last remaining wild cat in the UK, and with a total population thought to be between 200 and 400 it is considered critically endangered. If the situation worsens it can only become extinct.
"I think the Scottish Wildcat Association's plan is presently the only viable comprehensive plan to save the Scottish wildcat from extinction. The time to act has come."
Sanderson added: "In Spain, the Iberian lynx, which also numbers around 200 individuals, is the subject of a 30-million conservation programme. The Scottish wildcat conservation programme doesn't even have a million pounds, so I would urge everyone who cares about this animal to support the Association's plan in the coming years."
Wildcat experts based in Scotland have also been consulted on the project.
Andrew Kitchener, the principal curator of vertebrates at the National Museum of Scotland, who has studied the wildcat, has been acting as an adviser to the project.
Kitchener said: "The evolutionary story of the wildcat goes back almost two million years and the Scottish population is the most northerly population of wildcat in the world and there are bound to be some evolutionary adaptations that are unique to the Scottish wildcat.
"They have probably been in Britain for 9,000 years – around five or six thousand years before the domestic cat was even invented. If we can't even look after the Highland tigers on our doorsteps, how can we ask the people of India to look after their own tigers."