In an unlikely twist, a national mission to save the critically endangered Scottish wildcat in the Highlands has been dogged by vandalism and the theft of scientific data.
An investigation is underway following the destruction and theft of cameras and equipment that had been set up to capture footage of the ultra-rare cats in Clashindarroch forest, near Huntly.
Officers say important scientific information has also been taken and a cage trap for the humane live capture of cats was damaged in a spate of incidents last month.
It is not known who is responsible for the attacks, but it has been suggested they could have been carried out to destroy evidence of illegal activities such as poaching in the forest.
The fieldwork equipment was owned by the nation’s official wildcat conservation project, Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA), which works at five sites.
Wildcat Haven, a privately run conservation group that carries out similar monitoring work, is also operating in Clashindarroch forest and elsewhere.
A spokesman for Wildcat Haven said they have also experienced theft and damage to equipment, but had not reported the incidents to police. He said up to 30 cameras could be lost in a single year.
SWA field workers have hit out at those behind the crimes, which they fear could hamper efforts to prevent extinction of the species. We are extremely disappointed by what has happened in Clashindarroch,” priorities area manager Dr Roo Campbell said.
“Our conservation work is crucial to the continued survival of the critically endangered Scottish wildcat.
“Those responsible have not only damaged our equipment and robbed the project of vital scientific information, but they have also curtailed work crucial to the conservation of the Scottish wildcat.
“What is particularly disappointing is the theft of our volunteers’ information.
“We have nearly 50 local people generously giving their time to help the project and they are devastated that their hard work has been stolen.”
Clashindarroch forest has been identified as a hotspot for wildcats.
Last moth Wildcat Haven released footage of what they claim is the largest specimen – nicknamed the Clashindarroch Beast – ever caught on film in Scotland.
The Scottish wildcat, the UK’s only native feline, is at serious risk of extinction.
Estimates suggest there could be as few as 100 left in the wild, all of them in Scotland.
Hybridisation with feral and pet cats is the key threat to its continued survival.
SWA was launched in 2015 in an 11th-hour bid to safeguard the species. More than 20 organisations and scores of volunteers are involved.
Conservation measures include neutering and vaccinating feral cats, as well as gathering genetic samples and video evidence of any remaining wildcats. There is also a captive breeding programme.
Police are appealing for people to come forward if they can help shed light on the incidents at Clashindarroch, which took place between 1 and 27 March.
PC Hammond, from the Huntly Community Policing Team, said: “We are investigating this matter and would urge anyone who has information to contact us.”