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Scotland changes course to save its last native wildcats

Scottish wildcat. Photo courtesy of Stewart Grant/Cairngorms National Park.

Scottish wildcat. Photo courtesy of Stewart Grant/Cairngorms National Park.

  • The European wildcat has been put into an “intensive care” program of captive breeding and reintroduction in Scotland.
  • Found only in a few small pockets in the north, it is the country’s only remaining native felid.
  • But even the conservationists in charge of it accept that the program’s success is far from certain to save the “Highland tiger,” a species emblematic of Scotland’s wild landscapes.

Great Britain has lost its entire suite of top land predators over the past few thousand years: wolves (Canis lupus), brown bears (Ursus arctos) and lynx (Lynx lynx) have all vanished from the island, largely due to habitat loss, hunting and persecution.

Now it’s on the verge of losing a much smaller one, and its only remaining native felid: the European wildcat (Felis silvestris).

Found today in a few small pockets of northern Scotland, the wildcat has been put on what’s described as an “intensive care” program of captive breeding and reintroduction into one carefully selected area. The plan is to release 20 cats a year, starting in 2023, for up to three years, with the aim of sufficiently reinforcing those cats that are still there to build a self-sustaining, viable population.

But how did the situation get so desperate that such a last-gasp intervention was deemed necessary? Wildcats are small carnivores, slightly larger than domestic cats, and are found across Europe, including in France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, most of the Iberian Peninsula and large parts of Eastern Europe.

Wildcat. Image courtesy of Saving Wildcats/Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.
Wildcat. Image courtesy of Saving Wildcats/Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.

While there are concerns about population declines in mainland Europe, the situation is nowhere near as perilous for the species as it is in Scotland. Will this new captive-breeding approach save an animal affectionately called the “Highland tiger” and regarded as emblematic of Scotland’s wildness? Even those conservationists in charge of the program accept this is far from certain.

“If you look at the literature on reintroductions globally, about 30% of them are successful,” Helen Senn, head of conservation and science programs at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and chair of the project management group of the current, government-backed wildcat conservation program, Saving Wildcats, said in an interview with Mongabay. “This is hugely challenging and there is no guarantee of success.”

A wildcat reintroduction program carried out in Germany released 580 captive-bred wildcats into four different areas of Bavaria between 1984 and 2008. Studies contained in a report from 2009 suggest a sufficient number of animals survived and established core populations, but no comprehensive monitoring study has ever been carried out to assess the success of the program, and the number now living in the region is unknown.

It’s not just the fact of the odds being stacked against it that has brought criticism from other conservationists and scientists. They say Saving Wildcats has moved to a media-friendly captive-breeding and reintroduction policy to avoid the really hard work required to save the species in Scotland.

They argue that official conservation measures over the past decade failed because they were poorly implemented, the true status of wildcats in Scotland is not known because a comprehensive national survey has never been carried out, and that a possible threat to the largest and most viable population in Scotland — from plans to develop a 14-turbine wind farm — is being ignored.

Environmental consultant Dominic Woodfield, who has worked with the conservation group Wildcat Haven, told the public inquiry on the wind farm project earlier this year that he and other scientists disputed the assertion that Scotland’s wildcats were functionally extinct. “Every effort should be being made to conserve them in-situ rather than resort to captive-breeding programs,” he said.

Wildcat kitten. Image courtesy of Saving Wildcats/Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.
Wildcat kitten. Image courtesy of Saving Wildcats/Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.

Cat crossing complication

The wildcat has been fully protected in Scotland since 1988, and active, targeted conservation work has been taking place for about 15 years. So, what’s gone wrong?

The first thing is that wildcats have been declining in Britain for many centuries, and they were completely eliminated from England and Wales some time during the 19th century, leaving a relict population hanging on in Scotland.

Wildcats have been further affected as a result of hybridization with domestic cats (Felis catus), a closely related species. In Scotland, this appears to have accelerated as populations reached critically low levels, and most wild-living cats in Scotland are now either domestic animals or domestic-wildcat hybrids.

Though scientists were reporting the hybridization problem by the late ’90s, it wasn’t until 2008 that experts decided that something had to be done. The answer, they concluded, was a policy of “Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Release,” or TNVR as it’s routinely called.

The idea is simple: place live traps in areas known, or believed to be, inhabited by wildcats, and wait to see what you catch. Any feral cats or wildcat hybrids are taken away, neutered and vaccinated, and then released back where they were found. This is critical to stop unneutered feral cats from moving into that territory and crossbreeding with wildcats.

TNVR was largely made possible by the development of a pelage test, under which individual cats are given points for particular features of their coat and morphology. To be considered a wildcat, animals have to score at least 17 out of 21, with 19 considered ideal. Genome testing is an even better way to assess wild-living cats, Senn said, but added this is not always possible.

The most intensive TNVR program was carried out by Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA), a forerunner to Saving Wildcats, in the late 2010s. According to Roo Campbell, who ran the SWA trapping operations and now works for the Scottish government’s wildlife agency NatureScot, they were able to catch 228 wild-living cats in the six wildcat priority areas from a total of more than 3,500 trap nights.

“Ideally, we would trap about 75% of the cat population annually to affect a reduction in the population,” he told Mongabay by email. “We didn’t achieve that during the project, and our typical rate was about one quarter of the population. Our main lesson from this is that we would have needed significantly more resources to achieve such a high neutering rate [of 75%].”

Faced with increasing evidence that TNVR wasn’t working, the SWA commissioned a study from the IUCN, the global conservation authority. This report, “Conservation of the wildcat (Felis silvestris) in Scotland,” estimated that the population had sunk to as low as 30 animals, and that a “hybrid swarm” or continuum of animals, ranging from the real thing to domestic cats, was a major obstacle to recovering the species.

The SWA’s approach wasn’t working, it concluded, and reintroductions or population reinforcements were the only way to save the wildcat in Scotland.

Could more have been done to make TNVR work? “If we’d had the data we have now 30 years ago, it would have been a very strong argument to do much more extensive campaign of TNVR, but the problem was that we didn’t really know until quite recently how bad hybridization was,” Senn told Mongabay.

Woodfield said he doesn’t dispute the challenges of making TNVR effective. “What’s ridiculous is just giving up on it and redirecting the money into captive breeding,” he told Mongabay.

Scottish wildcat. Photo courtesy of Stewart Grant/Cairngorms National Park.
Scottish wildcat. Photo courtesy of Stewart Grant/Cairngorms National Park.

Not looking hard enough?

But what about the argument that Saving Wildcats doesn’t know the true status of the species in Scotland because no national survey has ever been carried out? The largest study done in the past decade was carried out by Kerry Kilshaw of the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU). She placed camera traps in 23 sites across northern Scotland. Others have been carried out specifically in Cairngorms National Park and in the wildcat priority areas.

But not everyone agrees that these surveys give a true picture of the real wildcat population in Scotland. The issue came to a head when Woodfield penned a blog post on the website of the well-known British conservationist and writer Mark Avery, in which he called for a proper, comprehensive survey of wildcats right across Scotland to be carried out.

“The discovery of hitherto unknown populations, such as that at Clashindarroch Forest in Aberdeenshire, over the past few years prove that it is capable of surviving in small, relict and remote populations that escape discovery without concerted and skilled efforts to find them,” he said.

Woodfield’s blog elicited a response from Saving Wildcats, which claimed that Woodfield had perpetuated the myth that “wildcats are still out there; we just haven’t looked hard enough.” Senn said it was possible there were some undiscovered individual animals, but that carrying out a national survey would be akin to “counting the books while the library burns.”

Gone with the wind?

Clashindarroch, in Aberdeenshire, is another bone of contention between the two sides. Wildcat Haven says there is evidence for 13 wildcats in this publicly owned commercial forest, about one-third of the total number thought to be left in Scotland. It says logging during the breeding season and plans for the wind farm threaten this entire population.

But despite this, neither Saving Wildcats, NatureScot nor Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS, which manages the land at Clashindarroch) has opposed the development. In a statement sent to Mongabay, FLS said it was not a statutory consultee and so could not lodge formal objections to any development.

Clashindarroch Forest. Image courtesy of Forestry and Land Scotland.
Clashindarroch Forest. Image courtesy of Forestry and Land Scotland.

In any case, it added, wildcats recently caught and assessed for their genetic purity had been below the threshold, and it said that it was not clear that the development of the wind farm would necessarily impact whatever wildcats or hybrids were present.

“A recent German study indicates that wildcats did not have resting places or breeding sites within 200 meters [660 feet] of turbines, but studies elsewhere in Europe have shown the abundance of large mammalian predators increased around wind farms, compared to control sites, because the roads allowed easy access to foraging areas,” it said in a statement.

But evidence given at the public inquiry showed that the average distance of a wildcat den from a wind turbine was considerably more — up to five times as far, in fact — and that wildcats actively avoid open spaces beneath the turbines.

Given that hybridization is the most significant current threat to wildcats in Scotland, some conservationists say more could have been done in the past decade to tackle domestic cat ownership. A  calling for legislation to require them to be neutered was rejected by the Scottish government in 2017.

Peter Cairns, executive director of the pro-rewilding group Scotland: The Big Picture, told Mongabay that Scotland had to make “brave decisions” to restore its biodiversity. “If we want to see wildcats prosper in the wild, it may necessitate changes in how domestic cat owners look after their pets,” he said.

Many other countries already take a more pro-active approach. A letter to Vet Record, the peer-reviewed journal of the British Veterinary Association, pointed out in 2018 that in Australia and New Zealand, where cats have had a huge impact on a swath of native wildlife, cat ownership is banned in some areas, and neutering is required in others. Neutering is compulsory for cats in Belgium, and for any cat that goes outdoors in Switzerland , said the authors, who included Senn and a number of the U.K.’s top wildcat experts.

Critical conservation issues can often divide experts from experts, and campaigners from campaigners, and the case of Scotland’s wildcats is certainly one of those. Passions run high on both sides, and there is little doubt that all believe they have the best solution to the current crisis.

But there is one thing that unites them — urgency — as time appears to be running out for the wildcat in Scotland, and it is far from certain that the current direction of travel will have the desired impact for Britain’s only remaining native cat.


James Fair is a reporter and editor specializing in wildlife conservation, find his latest work and thoughts on Twitter via @jamesfairwild.

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