Rarest of the rare: baby Highland wildcat boosts population of 400

A NEW arrival has boosted the dwindling population of Scottish wildcats.

The kitten, which has still to be sexed and named, was the only one born this year to mother Seasaidh and father Hamish, who live at the Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig, near Aviemore.

The park now has 12 wildcats, also known as Highland tigers, two of them born last year, but they remain one of Britain's rarest mammals.

It is estimated there are just 400 pure wildcats left in Scotland with the only remaining native feline having strongholds in the north and east of the country and isolated groups in the west.

One of the biggest threats to the species is hybridisation with domestic and feral cats.

Douglas Richardson, animal collection manager at the Highland Wildlife Park, said: "From latest estimates, the Highland tiger is more rare than some of its larger cousins, such as the Amur tiger that can also be seen here.

"Historically they were hunted for fur and killed as vermin, but more recently disease and vehicle collisions have also taken their toll.

"However, the greatest risk they face is interbreeding with domestic cats; extinction by dilution. The remote Highlands provide a last refuge for this endangered cat that once occurred throughout Britain."

Some feel captive breeding is the only method to ensure the future of the species. Neville Buck, an expert on wildcat captive breeding, said: "Any animal in the wild at the moment is under threat from hybridisation. Even if you have a pure wildcat in the wild there is always a chance it could meet a domestic cat that has not been neutered."

He said even breeding in captivity was a relatively rare event. "There is not a huge amount being bred in captivity, as we don't want to create more of a problem by breeding with animals we suspect are hybrids.

"It's only the animals we are sure of being a pure wildcat that we want to consider breeding from."

The wildcat (Felis sylvestris) has a broad geographical distribution over much of Europe, Africa, and Asia. However, there are different subspeices on each continent.

The European version is the largest and most heavily built,

Wildcats colonised Britain after the end of the Ice Age more than 9,000 years ago. But habitat destruction and hunting for fur saw their numbers fall and, by the late 19th century, they were restricted to remote, wooded parts of the Highlands.