WILDLIFE experts are to embark on one of the biggest conservation challenges Scotland has ever faced as they set out to save the Scottish wildcat from extinction.
The wildcat, one of the country’s most elusive and iconic native creatures, is in peril. Numbers were estimated at around 400 a decade ago, though some believe there could now be fewer than 100.
‘Success depends on working with local people to make a difference’
More than 20 organisations have joined forces to stop the species from vanishing and they have just five years to do it. Work by the newly formed Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA) group will focus on six priority areas believed to support the highest densities of the indigenous cat, which once roamed the whole of the UK. Covering more than 64,000 hectares, the sites are in Strathbogie in Aberdeenshire, the Angus Glens, Morvern in Lochaber, Strathpeffer in Easter Ross, Strathavon in Moray and northern Strathspey.
The biggest threat facing the “Highland tiger” comes from interbreeding with domestic and feral cats, diluting the gene pool.
The team’s first job is to work with land managers and cat owners to try to tackle hybridisation and disease from wild-living and pet cats, accidental persecution and the impact of development.
They will also set up a network of around 300 motion-sensitive cameras to shed new light on the animals inhabiting each area.
Another part of the programme will focus on local vets and cat protection organisations to co-ordinate a programme of trapping, neutering, vaccinating and releasing feral cats to stop them cross-breeding with wildcats.
Zoologist Dr Roo Campbell, project manager for the SWA, said: “We have five years to stop wildcats from disappearing but we need to improve the fortunes for Scottish wildcats in the long term.”
“That means leaving a legacy by reducing the risks from hybridisation and disease and the chances of accidental harm from predator-control activities.
“Success depends on working with local people to make a difference for the wildcats in their area. Together we can ensure the Scottish wildcat survives, not just over the next five years but into the future.”
There is currently no definitive genetic test to identify whether a wildcat is pure-bred, so they are graded through a combination of DNA evidence and a specially devised checklist of characteristics.
As a result, some critics have accused the conservationists of preserving nothing more than oversized tabby cats.
Dr Campbell admits there may be “very few” 100 per cent pure wildcats left – or possibly none – but remains convinced it is crucial to preserve the best remaining examples.
“A cat that is running around with 70 or 80 per cent of the genes, that is a Scottish wildcat. It is the unique genetic material of a Scottish wildcat in there.”