The Scottish wildcat is the UK’s rarest and most threatened mammal, with estimates suggesting as few as 35 – if any – genetically pure individuals remain in the wild, all in the Highlands.
This had led to the species, Felis silvestris, being declared functionally extinct in this country.
The cats were once widespread across the nation but a combination of hunting and loss of habitat loss saw them wiped out in England and Wales around 200 years ago.
The entire remaining population was restricted to the Scottish Highlands, but even those have virtually vanished.
Nowadays, the greatest threat to the species is hybridisation with domestic and feral cats, which dilutes the wildcat's genes and will ultimately see its distinctive features lost.
A national conservation campaign – Saving Wildcats, a European partnership project led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) – has been launched in an 11th-hour bid to boost numbers before the cats disappear for ever.
Efforts include a captive breeding programme that aims to raise new generations of animals with high genetic purity which can be released into the wild.
Now people are being asked to support the work by sponsoring wildcats in the conservation scheme, which is based at the Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig, near Kingussie.
There are three to choose from: Droma, Fruin and Cranachan, with contributions from £5 a month.
“Wildcats are Scotland's most iconic animal but also one of our most endangered,” said David Barclay, Saving Wildcats conservation manager.
“By sponsoring one of three cats in the breeding centre – confident Droma, nosy little Fruin or Cranachan, who loves his food – supporters will directly contribute to the future of the Highland tiger and have the chance to watch as their wildcat grows, learns and hopefully becomes a parent.
“These kittens will go on to be among the first released into the wild next year.
“As a sponsor, you’ll be helping to provide expert care, shelter and food for the wildcats today, which will help to restore their numbers in the wild tomorrow.
“Without future releases, the wildcat’s days in Scotland are numbered.
“The Saving Wildcats partnership project is their last hope.”