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Young captive-bred wildcats were set free in the Scottish Highlands last week – the first release of its kind in Britain.
The cats were bred and released by Saving Wildcats, a European project led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) in partnership with a group of conservation and governmental organizations. It wouldn’t reveal the exact number that had been released, describing it as “a few,” and adding that a total of 22 wildcats would be introduced over the coming months.
“It’s a really exciting milestone,” says Dr. Helen Senn, project lead for Saving Wildcats and head of conservation and science programs at RZSS. The releases are “critically important, because this species is on the brink of extinction,” she says.
The cats – sometimes known as the “Highland Tiger” – are barely hanging on by a whisker. Surveys conducted from 2010 to 2013 estimated that there are only 115 to 314 wildcats left in the wild, and a 2019 review by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Cat Specialist Group concluded that “there is no viable population of wildcats left anywhere in Scotland.”
Larger and stockier than domestic cats, wildcats have mottled brown fur, striped bushy tails with a black tip, and ears that stick out sideways.
The species arrived in Britain from Europe around 9,000 years ago. During the 19th century, habitat clearance and persecution wiped out the cats in England and Wales, leaving a remnant population in Scotland. Now, they have legal protection from humans, but domestic cats have become the chief danger – they breed with wildcats, producing hybrid kittens and threatening the species with genetic extinction.
That’s why Saving Wildcats chose Cairngorms Connect, a 232-square-mile conservation area in the Cairngorms National Park, a mountainous region in northern Scotland, for the release. “The Cairngorms have long been a stronghold for wildcats,” says Senn, “and the presence of feral (domestic) cats is low.”
The cats live mostly in valleys, prowling the edges of woodland in search of the small mammals, including rabbits, mice and voles, that comprise the bulk of their diet. Skilled stealth hunters, the cats will also pounce on frogs, lizards, insects and birds if they get the chance.
Saving Wildcats has taken every effort to ensure the captive-bred cats will have the instincts and hunting skills needed for survival in the wild.
The cats have been raised in a quiet area that’s closed to the general public at RZSS’s Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig, near the Cairngorms. “They’ve had as little contact with humans as possible,” says Senn.
The kittens were homed with their parents for up to nine months, then transferred to large enclosures to undergo final preparations before the release. Around 60 cats will be released over the next three years.
It’s illegal to feed live prey to the cats, says Senn, so they have been given a mixed diet of dead mice, rats and chicks, as well as whole and partial carcasses of rabbits and deer.
To mimic conditions in the wild, the keepers varied the timing of feeds and placed the food in different spots for the cats to find. “All the enclosures have climbing structures that wobble in the way that tree branches wobble,” says Senn, adding that these conditions encourage natural feeding behaviors and help the cats develop strong jaw muscles as well as the motor skills needed for balancing and coordination.
Before being released, the cats will be fitted with GPS tracking collars. Along with a network of camera traps, these will allow scientists to gather information about the cats’ behavior and lifestyle, says Senn. “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,” she says.
To decrease the chances of wildcats mating with domestic cats or succumbing to illness, the project is capturing feral cats, neutering them, vaccinating them against common feline diseases and returning them to the wild. We are also “encouraging pet owners to neuter and vaccinate their cats,” says Senn.
Saving Wildcats hopes to keep breeding and releasing around 20 kittens annually over the next few years to give the wild population the best chance of getting established.
Senn says her dream is to see wildcat populations thrive in the Cairngorms and to eventually be restored across large tracts of the Scottish landscape. “In the UK, 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,” she says.
Wildcats could be drivers for healthier ecosystems because creating better habitat for them will benefit many other species, says Senn. And they could also bring joy. “Wildcats are an iconic species for Scotland,” she says. “They’re a really important part of our culture.”