Often dubbed the Highland tiger, the UK’s only surviving native cat is on the brink of vanishing. Experts believe 300 or fewer – maybe 35 – remain.
Human persecution and habitat destruction saw it vanish from England, Wales and southern Scotland by 1880. The last few are restricted to the Highlands, but it’s feared interbreeding with domestic cats will wipe it out forever.
A government-backed initiative, Scottish Wildcat Action, was launched in 2013 in an 11th-hour attempt to safeguard the species.
Key conservation measures include vaccinating and neutering domestic and feral cats to stop inbreeding and reduce the risk of disease.
The independent charity Wildcat Haven has been working in a similar project in Ardnamurchan since 2008.
Now the charity is set to create a new 1,500-square-mile conservation zone in Caithness where wildcats can be protected from hybridisation.
It’s part of a larger long-term plan that would see the two areas linked up to created a “truly national” safe area for the species.
Work, including free neutering and microchipping, will start next month. Conservationists say collaboration with landowners and the community will be key to its success.
Project director Emily O’Donoghue, director of Wildcat Haven, believes Caithness can become a real stronghold for the remaining wildcats.
“There have always been extremely promising sightings reported in Caithness and Sutherland, but no one has ever properly surveyed it or worked there,” she said.
“We realised that the only chance any wildcats in the area had was for us to try and replicate the success we’ve had in Lochaber. We’re really excited as to what we might find.”
The scheme has received backing from staff and pupils at Thrumster Primary, near Wick, who are looking forward to getting involved.
Class teacher Lynsey Bremner said: “Giving the children the hands on experience of working with Wildcat Haven will mean that their learning is related to issues we are facing in the real world, giving it purpose.”