THE Scottish wildcat may already be consigned to folklore as genetic tests reveal the native feline may already be extinct.
Experts have identified hybridisation through interbreeding with domestic and feral animals as the biggest threat to the survival of the UK’s only indigenous cat species.
Now conservationists have admitted that analysis of samples collected over 30 years of research on the critically endangered cat reveal none were 100 per cent genetically pure.
The shock revelation came yesterday as government agency Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) published a new report setting out proposals for the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan.
Once found across the UK, the wildcat exists only north of the Central Belt in Scotland.
The report does not reveal how many wildcats are left in Scotland, but previous estimates have been as low as 35.
SNH has admitted that tests carried out by the WildGenes laboratory at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland showed “all the wild-living cat samples collected in the last 30 years appear to have some domestic cat genetic markers”.
The agency also warned that using the term “pure” wildcat “may not be helpful in conservation terms”.
Despite the fact no genuine wildcats have been identified, SNH stressed there should be a “pragmatic” approach .
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Recommendations include setting out six new conservation areas to protect remaining “good” populations of the wildcat and implementing a “trap, neuter and release” programme for all feral and hybrid animals found on the sites.
“These priority areas give us real opportunity to halt the decline of the Scottish wildcat and preserve its distinctive identity,” said Jenny Bryce, wildlife ecologist for the nature agency.
“The action plan partners take a pragmatic view – there are good examples of wildcats out there, displaying many of the characteristics of this species. And this is very much the focus of the new Wildcat Action project.”
But independent experts have condemned SNH’s strategy for saving the wildcat.
“It is possible that the pure wildcat is extinct, however SNH in no way have the tools or data to make such a statement,” said Steve Piper, an independent expert who worked as an adviser for the SNH action plan until 2012.
“There are thousands upon thousands of hybrids in Scotland, they do not need saving – no-one can fail to save these pretend ‘wildcats’.
“SNH’s duty to the public and international legislation is to make every effort to establish if a pure wildcat exists by carrying out a truly representative survey of the Highlands, collecting genetic samples directly from the cats and analysing them through a genetic test with a pure wildcat reference sample.
But Emily O’Donoghue, director of the Wildcat Haven conservation project, insists that pure wildcats do still exist.
However, she described SNH’s strategy as a “national disgrace” and said: “SNH is leaving the last wildcats open to persecution when they need protection.”
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