Of all Scotland’s wild mammals, the wildcat is perhaps the most elusive. I’ve only ever had a good sighting of one once – on the dunes at Coul Links in east Sutherland back in 1994. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the animal I saw was unlikely to have been a pure-bred wildcat, despite displaying all the physical characteristics of the species, including a wonderfully bushy tail. It’s highly likely it was a hybrid between a domestic cat and the ancestors of the European wildcats that colonised Britain 9,000 years ago by crossing the ice which then connected us to the continent.
Like many other species, wildcats have suffered a precipitous decline in numbers over several centuries due to a combination of habitat destruction and persecution. By the end of the 19th century, Victorian hunters had exterminated wildcats in England and Wales and only a few were hanging on in northern Scotland. In the 20th century, hunting reduced somewhat but by now the remaining wildcats had begun to breed with domestic cats creating a new race of hybrids.
This history of hybridisation makes the design of a conservation plan for the species a big challenge. Most, possibly all, purportedly ‘wild’ wildcats are to a greater or lesser extent a blend of domestic and wild genes. This raises a question. What are we conserving and why? If most or all are now hybrids, one approach could be to set a ‘percentage pure’ cut-off and try to focus on saving those that pass the test. To do this, however, will involve an awful lot of trapping and genetic testing. Another obvious problem is deciding on the percentage in the first place. Let’s say the cut-off is 75 per cent and a test result comes in for a given cat at 74 per cent – does this mean that individual has no conservation value?
As complex and morally tricky as wildcat conservation is, there is a carefully thought through national plan which, in the long term, could see wildcats thrive again above the Highland fault line. The plan is being led by Scottish Wildcat Action, a partnership of 24 organisations, including my own, the Scottish Wildlife Trust. It aims to save the wildcat by implementing a portfolio of actions underpinned by the best available science.
The partnership team has been working with local people in five priority areas – Strathbogie, Angus glens, northern Strathspey, Morvern and Strathpeffer – to reduce the risks of hybridisation, disease and accidental persecution whilst also gathering extensive data to improve our understanding of the species. It has also been improving habitat in places like Clashindarroch Forest, where sensitive forestry operations are creating ideal wildcat habitat with mosaics of open ground – often rich in prey such as field voles – in combination with denser plantation woodland.
All of these actions will help but they are unlikely to be enough on their own. This is why Scottish Wildcat Action is also considering reinforcing remaining populations with wildcats bred in a conservation breeding programme being led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. In time, if combined with trap-neuter-release schemes for feral cats, reinforcement could reverse the degree of hybridisation and help create self-sustaining breeding populations across large areas of the northern Highlands. We shouldn’t pretend that achieving such a vision will be easy, but we must surely try. The future of the ‘Highland tiger’ is in our hands.
Jonny Hughes is chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Follow him on Twitter @JonnyEcology.