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Friday, 14 September 2012

Scottish Wildcat is in imminent danger of extinction

Photo: Laurie Campbell Photography 

Hot on the heels of yesterdays post which included the recent press release from SNH, comes another from the Scottish Wildcat Association.

You'll notice that I've changed their headline for the title of this post, because although I echo their sentiments for urgent action, nobody is certain  how many pure bred wildcats are left in the wild, or in captivity for that matter.

For this to be established genetic testing is an absolute priority and it's high time for SNH to formalise their national conservation action plan for
the Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia), and to approve licences for this work to be able to start.

Scottish wildcat faces extinction within months

Days before Scottish Natural Heritage begin formulating their action plan for the Scottish wildcat, conservationists warn that numbers may have slumped to 35 individuals and that significant policy change is essential. 

Critical analysis of efforts to identify Scottish wildcat populations over the last five years has concluded that the population numbers just 35 individuals.

A team put together by the Scottish Wildcat Association has appraised over 2000 records including camera trap sightings, eye witness reports and roadkills collected independently by organisations such as the SWA, Cairngorms Wildcat Project and Oxford University.

Wildcats are threatened primarily with hybridisation; cross-mating with feral domestic cats. The “hybrid” offspring in turn mate with more wildcats, ferals and hybrids creating a confusing spectrum of cats that look similar to wildcats, but behave very differently putting pressure on prey species and raising conflicts with rural businesses.

Of the 2000 records of hybrids and wildcats less than 20 comply with the accepted coat-marking identifiers of the true wildcat, with an estimated 3500 hybrids in Scotland this would mean there were just 35 wildcats remaining.

“However you juggle the figures it’s hard to find anything positive,” comments SWA chairman Steve Piper, “if you ignore the eye witness sightings because they’re unreliable the numbers get even worse, if you hypothesise that wildcats avoid roads they only pick up a little, even if you decide the population of hybrids is larger you have to multiply it to impossible levels to get to the commonly quoted figure of 400 wildcats. The overwhelming evidence is that the wildcat is going to be extinct within months, anything else is blind hope.”

The news comes in stark contrast to reports earlier in the year claiming hundreds of wildcats had been found in the Cairngorms by the SNH funded Cairngorms Wildcat Project, Piper elaborates;

“We’ve asked the leading experts in identifying wildcats to double check opinions of our team and no one thought those animals were true wildcats. Apparently the Cairngorms project worked to a ‘relaxed’ criteria, in other words, if a hybrid looked close to a wildcat, they were calling it a wildcat; the much repeated phrase ‘expert verified pure-bred wildcat’ used in the press was exceptionally misleading.”

Scottish Natural Heritage have recently announced a series of meetings to formulate a national conservation action plan for the Scottish wildcat, listed by them as a priority species. Hopes have also been raised by the near completion of a genetic test to identify true wildcats; however the geneticist in charge of that project, Dr Paul O’Donoghue at the University of Chester, has concerns;

“The real issue is stopping hybridisation, we can only do that accurately with a genetic test which works off of blood samples, wildcats have to be live trapped and sampled; no trapping, no genetics, no end to hybridisation. We’ve worked with the SWA and many of the experts in the scientific community to create an action plan combining such live trapping with the trapping and neutering of feral and hybrid cats and are waiting for our licence to be approved by SNH. No meaningful conservation is happening without it.”

Piper echoes his opinions;

“The licencing to trap wildcats is a big issue for their conservation, without it they will go extinct, taking photos of wildcats doesn’t stop them mating with feral cats. Many exceptional researchers and conservationists have proposed work before us and we’ve proposed variations of the same action plan three times in the last year but no progress, it’s coming up on twenty years since a trapping licence was issued and that’s really holding things back.

“There is a clear path of action left open, the one big place no one has looked in real detail is Sutherland and Caithness, we’re sending people up there at the moment as are Oxford University, but we really need the go ahead to trap cats and use the genetics or it’s all guesswork. If we find wildcats, it raises new issues, they will be hard to protect in an expanse like Sutherland, realistically we need to relocate them somewhere they can be protected or put a truly vast amount of money and resources into the region to keep wildcats separated from hybrids and ferals.

“SNH have put in less than 0.1% of their budget to wildcats over the last eight years so maybe it’s their turn to get some attention, I hope so. It’s wholly unacceptable to lose a creature unique to Scotland when there is overwhelming public support, plenty of money within the current budgets for such things and a very talented community of scientists who have spent nearly a decade proposing solutions, it’s time they were allowed to get on with it.”
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This web site is about the wildlife, particularly the mammals, of the Glen Affric National Nature Reserve area in the north west Highlands of Scotland, UK; and the equipment I use to search for them, which is chiefly trail cameras.

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