Captive-Bred Scottish Wildcats May Save the Species from Extinction

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Last week, repopulation efforts took place in the Scottish Highlands when a number of young, captive-bred wildcats were released into the wild. The event is being touted as the first of its kind in Britain.

The felines, who greatly resemble tabbies, were bred and released by Saving Wildcats, a European project led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland in conjunction with a group of conservation and governmental organizations.

“It’s a really exciting milestone,” noted Dr. Helen Senn, the project lead for Saving Wildcats and the head of conservation and science programs at RZSS. She went on to add that the releases are considered “critically important because this species is on the brink of extinction.”

Scottish wildcat
Photo: Pixabay/ambquinn

Sometimes referred to as Highland tigers, the felines are quickly disappearing. In fact, surveys between 2010 and 2013 estimated there were a mere 115 to 314 wildcats left in nature. To one up that, a 2019 review by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Cat Specialist Group arrived at the sad conclusion that “there is no viable population of wildcats left anywhere in Scotland.”

Described as larger and stockier than domestic cats, the species is believed to have arrived in Britain from Europe around 9,000 years ago. During the 1800s, clearance of habitat and persecution saw the cats erased in England and Wales.

And as recently as the late 1990s/early 2000s, the cats were known to be fading fast from the Scottish landscape. While they have legal protection from humans, which helps to some extent, the problem now is the watering down of the breed through interbreeding with domestic felines, which produces hybrids. The continuation of this has conservationists concerned.

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Scottish wildcat
Photo: Pixabay/DesignFife

The group Saving Wildcats chose Cairngorms Connect for the recent release due to its remote location. Consisting of a 232-square-mile conservation area, it is situated within the Cairngorms National Park, a mountainous region in northern Scotland. “The Cairngorms have long been a stronghold for wildcats,” explained Senn, “and the presence of feral cats is low.” In this case, feral is referring to stray domestic cats.

The cats for the project have been raised in a quiet area near the Cairngorms. “They’ve had as little contact with humans as possible,” stated Senn.

Homed with their parents for up to nine months, the offspring were then transferred to an area to be fitted with GPS tracking collars before the release. This will allow scientists to keep up with their movements.

“We’re going to use this opportunity to learn as much as we possibly can, to help us adapt and improve (our approach) over time,” Senn said.

The hope for Saving Wildcats is to continue breeding and releasing about 20 kittens annually over the next few years to give the wild population the best chance of getting established. All in all, an estimated 60 wildcats will be released over the next three years.

Scottish wildcat
Photo: Pixabay/ambquinn

Senn admitted that her dream is to see wildcat populations not just survive but thrive in the Cairngorms and eventually be restored across vast tracts of Scottish wilderness.

“In the U.K., we’ve lost a lot of our carnivore species, and if we allow the wildcat to go extinct, it would be a really sad indictment of where we’ve got to ecologically, Senn lamented.

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The hope is that the wildcats could be the impetus for healthier ecosystems that will also benefit other species. “Wildcats are an iconic species for Scotland,” Senn concluded. “They’re a really important part of our culture.”

Scottish wildcats live predominantly in valleys where they prowl the perimeter of woodlands hunting for small mammals that make up the bulk of their diet, like rabbits, mice, frogs, insects, and voles.

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