DOMESTIC cats should be compulsorily neutered as part of an intensive campaign to save the Scottish wildcat from "imminent" extinction, according to leading conservationists.
Britain’s top experts also called for feral cats in prime Highland habitats to be culled, saying that the wildcat could "literally disappear overnight" without prompt efforts to prevent cross-breeding with domestic and feral felines.
A report entitled The State of Britain’s Mammals by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit [WCRU], published last year at Oxford University, said that population estimates in Scotland varied between 1,000 and 4,000.
But the zoologist who wrote the report has now revised that figure, believing that "at worst, fewer than 400 cats with classical wildcat pelage (fur markings) may now survive".
He stresses that British law is not adequate to ensure the conservation of wildcats, and this must be urgently addressed.
Professor David Macdonald, the head of the WCRU, told The Scotsman: "If the assumptions are right, there may be rather fewer than previously thought, perhaps 400 or so scattered across large areas of Scotland.
"That would catapult them to being absolutely at the top of Britain’s endangered wild animals list. There should be very serious concern about just how endangered the wildcat is. We have come up with the evidence that this species is perhaps seriously imperilled, so we must now decide what to do about it."
He agreed that neutering of domestic cats should be "seriously considered", and that an amendment of the Wildlife and Countryside Act to include a workable definition of the species on which expert witnesses can agree was "clearly necessary".
Few people in Britain have seen a wildcat [Felis sylvestris sylvestris] in its natural surroundings, as the species now only exists in the more isolated areas of the Highlands.
It was once widespread in Britain, but had disappeared from lowland farming areas by the end of the 18th century because of the spread of agriculture and persecution by Edwardian and Victorian gamekeepers who saw them as a threat to grouse stocks.
Dr Andrew Kitchener, the curator of mammals at the National Museums of Scotland, who has just submitted a scientific study of the wildcat for publication in the journal Animal Conservation, said: "A programme of sterilising domestic cats in known wildcat strongholds is necessary.
"The only way of ensuring the immediate future of the species is to embark upon a captive breeding programme. There is a very real problem that they might just disappear overnight through introgression [a pollution of the wild gene pool through cross-breeding]."
Currently in discussion with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) about the situation, Dr Kitchener added: "I think it would be worth taking a small number from the wild each year to build up the capture population."
Roy Dennis, a leading figure in the reintroduction of formerly extinct species to Scotland, and an expert on native mammals, said: "Feral cats need to be culled, and then SNH should encourage people living in the countryside and villages in wildcat strongholds to neuter all domestic cats.
"The government should pick up the tab, and anyone who cares about saving one of our rarest and most magnificent species should do this.
"It is a critical moment and there is no time to waste in saving this species from local extinction."
George Anderson, a spokesman for SNH, said: "We are keen to look at what can be done to promote wildcat conservation, and welcome discussions with experts.
"Neutering of feral cat populations has been conducted in urban areas by animal welfare groups, and could be considered in rural areas."
He added: "Captive breeding would have to be in conjunction with action on wild habitat. It will be sad if the Scottish wildcat’s only future was in a zoo."
... AND HOW TO TELL THE TRULY WILD CAT APART
AS ITS Latin name, Felis sylvestris sylvestris, suggests, the Scottish wildcat is really a forest animal that requires extensive tracts of woodland, or wild country, to flourish.
Although it belongs to the same species as the domestic cat (Felis sylvestris catus) and has similar markings to the domestic tabby, the wildcat is considerably larger and more robust. Dark stripes adorn their bodies, they have broad, blunt heads and bushy tails which are strongly marked with between three and five black rings, ending in a rounded, bushy black tip. Eyes are generally amber and the nose a distinctive pink colour.
Highland folklore maintains it carried a hook on the end of its impressive tail.
Wildcats measure up to 65cm long and weigh as much as 7kg, are noticeably stockier and more powerful than their domestic cousins, and longer in the leg. Naturalists believe that truly wild cats are now confined to the remotest Highland glens, and that many "sightings" are in fact of hybrids.
Usually crepuscular or nocturnal, they do venture out in late afternoon during the summer months.
In recent years, young plantations have created much good habitat for small rodents, and so have prevented the demise of the species altogether. In summer they live mainly in the open, but in winter use dens in cairns or hollow trees, keeping away from areas frequented by humans.
Their diet includes rabbits, squirrels, hares, voles, mice and rats, but they also eat birds, fish and frogs.