Last week, we introduced you to our new publication, 50 for the Future; a list of 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. This article is the first in a series that will delve deeper into each of the 50 things. By exploring them individually, we hope to demonstrate why it is so important that collectively, we achieve every single one. Our first article, written by Dr Roo Campbell of Scottish Wildcat Action, demonstrates how important collaboration will be in delivering success.
Number 6: Save the Scottish wildcat by bolstering the population and reducing key threats in target areas.
The Scottish wildcat is an important species, not only because it is our last remaining native cat, but also because it has been firmly embedded in our culture for thousands of years. It is an iconic animal that features on many clan crests and has inspired numerous poets and writers. However, the story of the untameable spirit of the Scottish wildcat, our wee Highland tiger, is rapidly becoming a myth, a thing of the past.
Scottish wildcats are now so critically endangered that when people talk about seeing one in the wild, it is often from 10, 20, even 50 years ago. Sightings today are predominantly of hybrid cats, those with mixed domestic cat and wildcat ancestry. These hybrids interbreed with each other leading to a complex mix of ancestry (the technical term is introgressive hybridisation or introgression). This introgression is now the biggest threat and, if it continues, we will lose the Scottish wildcat as a distinct species.
Whilst Scottish wildcats are protected by law, feral cats are a non-native species and as such it is legal for gamekeepers to shoot them. Feral cats are domestic cats that are living in the wild and have no owner, either because they or their ancestors have been abandoned, lost, or have broken away from a colony of farm cats. It is estimated there are over 800,000 feral cats in the UK (Woods et al., 2003), though welfare charity, Cats Protection, think that this figure could be as high as 1.5 million. Preliminary genetic assessment of feral cats in wildcat areas indicates that many have some wildcat ancestry (hybridisation is a two way street). Indeed, if you spot a cat living in the wild in the Scottish Highlands, chances are it contains a mix of wildcat and domestic cat ancestry. Instead of asking is it a wildcat, you might ask yourself how much of a wildcat is it?
The remaining pure or near-pure Scottish wildcats are far outnumbered, making it difficult for them to find and breed with other wildcats. They are also vulnerable to the same diseases as feral cats and can be caught in the crosshairs if gamekeepers carrying out feral cat control mistake them for a feral tabby.
Earlier this year, a new project, Scottish Wildcat Action, started operations in earnest to save the Scottish wildcat. It is the biggest conservation project for the wildcat and unites leading wildcat experts from over 20 organisations, including Scottish Wildlife Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), National Trust for Scotland, The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh, National Museums Scotland, Scottish Gamekeepers Association, Forestry Commission Scotland, the Cairngorms National Park Authority among others.
By combining the expertise of conservationists, scientists and land managers, Scottish Wildcat Action is delivering an extensive programme across the Scottish Highlands to massively reduce threats, whilst also breeding wildcats for later release. It is a huge undertaking, with funding from Heritage Lottery Fund to carry out a Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate and Release programme in six priority areas, alongside educating and informing land managers and cat owners, and the Scottish Government and RZSS funding a conservation breeding programme.
In combination, Scottish Wildcat Action aims to create safe places for wildcats and to establish a founder population to release back into the wild. However, it recognises the importance of changing human behaviour as essential to the long-term conservation of the Scottish wildcat. Engaging with different stakeholders in the community such as vets, cat owners, farmers, and gamekeepers, is a vital element to the project. If you live or work in the Highlands and would like to get involved, please get in touch. To find out how, simply visit the Scottish Wildcat Action website or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
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Dr Roo Campbell is the Project Manager for Scottish Wildcat Action.