A NEW genetic test is being developed which could help save the Scottish wildcat from the brink of extinction.
The number of animals is now so low that they could be gone within a year, the Scottish Wildcat Association has warned.
But it believes the new test, which is being part-developed at an Edinburgh laboratory, will allow pure-bred wildcats to be counted and then entered into a breeding programme.
Cross-breeding with domestic and feral cats posses a particular threat to the species.
Steve Piper, of the Scottish Wildcat Association, said: “There are barely words to describe how desperate their plight is.
“Everyone who sees them loves them, but if we don’t act now, then Scottish wildcats could be gone in as little as a year. There used to be tens of thousands of wildcats roaming Scotland. The last attempt to establish the numbers in 2004 estimated it was only about 400.
“Many conservationists put the figure at 100 and some think there may already be none left.
“They are disappearing so fast they are in more peril than pandas, tigers or polar bears.” More than 100,000 feral cats in the Highlands are mixing with wildcats.
Hybrids are noticeable for having thicker coats and are bigger than the feral variety.
But only blood tests, partly developed by an Edinburgh lab, will determine the true number of pure wildcats left. Mr Piper said: “These [hybrids] are different from wildcats, which have always been solitary, not taking birds and the likes and existing only on rabbits.
“The hybrids are seen as more of a pest and are targeted as such.
“Even some of the wildcats in captivity may be hybrids, nobody knows. This test will allow Scottish wildcats to be identified, brought together from wherever they are in the UK and a breeding programme [will be] started.
“This is absolutely critical to the creatures’ survival. If we can successfully breed them in captivity, then we can start to address the problems in the wild.”
Dr Paul O’Donoghue, of Chester University, who is developing the test in partnership with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland WildGenes Lab in Edinburgh, said the work done so far has been “incredibly encouraging”.
“Initial results suggest a diagnostic wildcat test will be available,” he added.
If enough true wildcats were discovered to breed from, Mr Piper would favour the creation of a “mainland island” for the cats on a Highland peninsula such as Ardnamurchan.
Douglas Richardson, of the Highland Wildlife Park, said: “We have this iconic emblem of the Highlands, and if we don’t get our finger out it will become extinct, guaranteed.”
In April, previously undiscovered populations of the Scottish wildcat were captured on camera by conservationists across the Cairngorms and Perthshire.
Camera traps were set up in the Cairngorms National Park and beyond to monitor the animals, nicknamed Highland tigers.