THE largest-ever survey of Scotland’s rare and iconic wildcats is now underway – using more than 300 trail cameras live.
The wildcats - known as the Tiger of the Highlands - will be the focus of a Big Brother style study, which focuses on the six priority areas of Scotland, including Strathpeffer, Strathbogie, Strathavon, North Strathspey, Morvern and the Angus Glens.
As part of Scottish Wildcat Action, these motion-sensitive cameras will monitor cats living in parts of the Highlands over a 60-day period.
Survey methods are informed by published scientific studies and a practical hands-on approach.
More than 130 volunteers will check the cameras.
Data gathered will help inform wildcat protection measures including an extensive neutering campaign to stop feral and pet cats from interbreeding with the endangered wildcats and passing disease on to them.
Dr Roo Campbell, the priority areas manager, said: “This is a significant step towards creating safer places for wildcats in Scotland.
“The winter survey will provide a huge source of information about what cats are out there, where they are and the degree of hybridisation between our native wildcat and the domestic cat.
“This is the first time a wildcat survey of this scale has been carried out and will be very important for assessing the current threats to wildcats.”
The Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris) is one of the country’s most endangered mammals and the only remaining native cat.
It urgently needs action to save shrinking populations in the wild. Following habitat loss and persecution through the 19th century, the wildcat is now restricted in the UK to the Scottish Highlands north of the central belt.
There are believed to be fewer than 100 left, a quarter of the population a decade ago.
The chief threat to the wildcat is continued interbreeding with domestic cats. Many wildcats in Scotland already contain some domestic cat ancestry and wildcats will continue to become less distinctive if this is left unchecked.
Scottish Wildcat Action is committed to reducing the risk of interbreeding between wildcats and domestic cats or obvious hybrids.
Once the situation in the priority areas is better known, the project team can determine appropriate follow-up actions.
This includes working with local communities and estates to protect our remaining wildcats and gearing up for a co-ordinated Trap Neuter Vaccinate and Release programme next summer.
Unowned domestic cats and obvious hybrids will be trapped, neutered and vaccinated before being returned to the wild under licence from Scottish Natural Heritage.
Scottish Wildcat Action is a partnership project uniting experts from more than 20 key organisations.