The “Highland tiger” is one of the world’s most endangered animals. Experts estimate there may be only 35 pure-bred individuals left. This compares with fewer than 2,500 wild Bengal tigers and makes the wildcat 70 times rarer than the giant panda.
The Ardnamurchan peninsula, which has some of Scotland’s wildest landscapes and few human residents, has been identified as a sanctuary. The Wildcat Haven Project aims to protect the species by catching and neutering feral and hybrid wildcats in the area to prevent them breeding with pure wildcats.
Geneticist Paul O’Donoghue, from Chester University, the scientific adviser to the project, said: “Feral cats are the biggest danger to the future of the Scottish wildcat. They interbreed and you end up with hybrids of varying degrees.
“The aim is to reduce and eventually remove the feral cat population from this area. We want to catch all the feral cats, neuter them and put them back where we found them, and eventually the population will die out over time.”
Dr O’Donoghue and Kent-based charity the Aspinall Foundation took over the project from the Scottish Wildcat Association (SWA) last year.
In 2012, the SWA warned that wildcats would soon be extinct in the wild after estimating that pure-bred cats had fallen to about 35 individuals, far fewer than previously thought.
As part of the Wildcat Haven Project, cage traps are baited with mackerel and fish oil to attract the animals. If the traps capture feral cats, they are neutered and released. If it looks like a wildcat, it will be recorded and a DNA sample taken to show just how purebred it is.
Environment agency Scottish Natural Heritage, which has estimated there could be 150 breeding pairs left, is backing moves in other areas, including the Cairngorms, to assess the threat to the species and work out ways to preserve it.
However, Dr O’Donoghue said time was running out.
“The Scottish wildcat is one of, if not the, most endangered animal on the planet,” he said. “Recent estimates put it at around 35 individuals. To put that in context, that’s 70 times rarer than the giant pandas.
“Without doubt this is the only chance the Scottish wildcat’s got. This is the only project that’s out there dealing with the issue of hybridisation.
“It’s only by dealing with this issue you’ve got any chance at all of saving the Scottish wildcat, and this is the only safe haven in Scotland now.”
The Ardnamurchan peninsula covers about 300 square miles and there may be only a few pure-bred wildcats living in that area. But the scientists believe those animals provide the best chance to save the species.
The Scottish wildcat – Felis silvestris grampia – is the only wild member of the cat family to survive in Britain.