THE UK's first captive breeding programme for Scottish wildcats is about to be launched at an English zoo amid fears the animals could be facing extinction.
Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in Kent is to recreate the wildcats' natural habitat in an enclosure designed to encourage the animals to hunt and breed as they would in the wild, it was revealed yesterday. The breeding cats will not be on display to the public.
Human interaction will be kept to a minimum, making it easier for them to be returned to the wild. They will be fed through hatches and trap doors to encourage them to forage for food.
Their enclosure, which will feature a copse of trees and a running stream, will initially house a pair of wildcats and any offspring. As the animals multiply, separate enclosures will be built to accommodate up to five breeding pairs.
Scotland is the last mainland stronghold of the wildcat, which had disappeared from England and Wales by 1862.
The animals have died out as a result of breeding with stray domestic cats, disease and the vanishing of their natural habitat.
It is estimated there may be fewer than 400 left in the wild.
Neville Buck, who is leading the project at the park near Hythe, said: "This is a way of helping us safeguard the future of the species."
The project will be funded by donations. It is the brainchild of the Aspinall Foundation, which runs the park and has successfully reintroduced lowland gorillas to the Congo. The group intends to take on one endangered species a year.
Several other wildlife parks have expressed an interest in the programme which, if successful, could be extended across the UK.