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Sunday, 7 October 2012

Scottish Wildcat Association October 2012 Newsletter

SNH action plan for wildcats
Scottish Natural Heritage, the Government agency responsible for nature in Scotland, announced the formation of a new conservation action group for the wildcat, put together with the intention of forming a national action plan to bring them back from the brink.

The group includes a wide cross section of groups who can all play a hand and bring a range of expertises to the table, besides ourselves at the Scottish Wildcat Association the group also includes Forestry Commission Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Cairngorms Wildcat Project, Highland Foundation for Wildlife, Highland Wildlife Park, Oxford University, Scottish Gamekeepers Association and leading wildcat expert Dr Andrew Kitchener.

Before the first meeting of the group we (the SWA)
completed an assessment of the various population studies and camera trap surveys carried out over the last five years. Assessing around 2000 recorded sightings (both eye witness and camera trap) we found that just 1 in every 100 actually appeared to be a true wildcat, with the rest being hybrid crosses of wildcats and feral cats. Extrapolated out across the Highlands, this suggests just 35 wildcats remain in the world.

Of course, such an analysis has a substantial caveat attached; surveys to date have not been equally spread across the landscape with various groups focusing on different areas. It is still more than plausible that a larger population of good wildcats could still be found in places like Sutherland or Caithness that would greatly improve those numbers. Sadly, it is also plausible that the same patterns will be found and extinction could be closer than anyone had hoped.

The action group met for the first time during September. Meetings between different groups and stakeholders have been held many times in the past tending towards keeping each other updated of what we were all working on, and we’re pleased to report that this meeting had a far more urgent outlook on finding ways for some very diverse groups to work together and quickly formulate a practical and plausible action plan that can conserve the Scottish wildcat.

As may be expected, there were plenty of things for us all to debate and disagree upon, however strong progress was made, many things were agreed, and we at the SWA certainly feel the outlook on conservation efforts looks better than it has in many years.

All action plan groups agreed we had to work together to survey as much of the Highlands as possible as quickly as possible to try and find these hidden pockets of wildcats everyone suspects are present but no one has yet managed to find. All groups will be referring to their members and supporters as well as working with other rural and conservation groups to highlight some key regions for closer investigation. Those key regions will be more closely investigated with camera traps to focus things even tighter, and then it is hoped the almost-developed genetic testing can be used to clarify exactly what survives and can be helped. This work is aimed to be completed within six months for the action plan to be built around. Several groups are already engaged in survey work which will continue and expand, we have some small groups currently looking at Argyll, Sutherland and Caithness which we believe are the most likely places to still have a true wildcat population.

Wildcat Haven
In the meantime, already planned efforts will continue and we were greatly relieved, after a year of waiting, to be granted permission to live trap wildcats and proceed with our Wildcat Haven conservation project in the West Highlands. This is the first time anyone has been allowed to trap wildcats in something like 20 years, and whilst we’d certainly prefer not to have to trap them it really is crucial for moving forward the conservation.

The Haven action plan, which has widespread scientific support, seeks to trap all felines living across a remote peninsula in the West Highlands. Feral cats will be neutered (currently understood to be the most effective way to reduce a feral cat population) and wildcats will be blood sampled for a field trial of the new genetic testing technique. The work will tell us how many wildcats live in the area, whether hybrids may have to play a role in their conservation and greatly reduce the threat posed by cross-mating with feral cats. We’ll also be able to get some data from the same blood samples on how seriously disease affects the wildcat in the area.

The genetic test and disease research simply requires a blood sample taken from an anaesthetised wildcat, once we have the blood, the cat will be woken up and left to go on its way, all the genetics stuff is done in a lab at Chester University, comparing the DNA in the blood to an ideal model of wildcat DNA by a new computer system.

The Haven project was two years in planning and has had about two years of field trials and local community engagement so far, this final trial of the methodology will be carried out over winter and hopefully can be fully rolled out next year. We hope it may be possible to establish a safe haven of almost 1000 square miles where all domestic species cats are neutered within 3-5 years. Within such a region wildcats would be closely monitored, captive bred releases can be organised, and it may make a sensible home for relocations of wildcats found in areas where threats are still very high.

Unfortunately, our licensing to trap wildcats comes with numerous caveats on the scale of work and the people who can be involved, so I’m afraid most of our long suffering list of fieldwork volunteers still have a wait before they can get involved but things are finally moving forward after quite a hiatus.

New people are often signing up for our mailing lists and groups so it’s well worth quickly reprising just what hybridisation is all about.

Wildcats and domestic cats are different species (feral cats are just pet cats run wild), but closely enough related that they can breed and produce fertile young called “hybrids”. Domestic cats vastly outweigh wildcat numbers, the last estimate was that there are 100,000 feral cats in the Highlands. Over time the wildcat genes are soaking into that gene pool and we end up with lots of cats that look a bit like wildcats, but are really just regular pussy cats with a thick tail and a bit of an attitude.

Domestic cats are not a native species (they were imported here in large numbers by the Romans), they’re a lot more social than wildcats living in higher densities and putting lots of pressure on prey species. They are also certainly not designed to live wild in the Highlands, originating in the Middle East. For about six months of the year the Highlands is colder than the freezer in your kitchen which is rather different to the occasionally chilly night domestic cats are designed for.

Ferals survive by making clever use of human resources for food and shelter (causing a lot of conflict with rural businesses and health issues for livestock and humans), and by producing phenomenal amounts of kittens. As you may expect, mortality rates are very high and life expectancy is very low, which makes it in the interests of conservationists and animal welfare supporters to work together and try to remove domestic cats from the wild entirely.

The latest studies significantly suggest that the most effective way to do this is by trapping and neutering feral cats. Many people assume a cull would be the most effective way forward but this appears to lead to a huge amount of migration with cats running around everywhere and surpluses of resources which lead to kitten booms; 3-6 months after a cull you’re back where you started. By neutering a cat and leaving it in the field, resource use is maintained, cats stay in the same place and less fearful of humans doing further trapping and neutering, and after a while the population starts to disappear because no breeding is taking place.

More research is required into the approach which is regularly used by groups such as Cats Protection in towns and on farms, but has hardly been used in “the wild” at all, however we’re very convinced by the logic of the argument and looking forward to being part of that better understanding trapping and neutering on the Wildcat Haven project.

Getting involved
Helping wildcats can be a frustrating business, their legal protection makes it illegal to do very much for them directly without specific licensing, and such licensing typically requires highly experienced individuals. Wildcats also choose to live in places very hard for humans to get to raising all sorts of additional safety and insurance requirements. It’s also worth mentioning that well meaning efforts can make things worse by disturbing wildcats, they have survived this long by not trusting humans so our presence in their territories can lead to problems if it isn’t very carefully planned with expert support. We hope that over time Wildcat Haven can grow to include a much more diverse range of volunteers, but in the meantime public support has to be less direct.

It almost goes without saying that financial help is always welcome, projects like Haven are very expensive to carry out and the current worldwide economic situation means that many grant giving foundations and common funders such as SNH are really squeezed in what they can afford, of course people are in exactly the same situation but any donations or fund raising efforts are always very welcome, the charity has extremely low overheads so money really does get spent on conservation, by our last accounts 70% was spent on Wildcat Haven for example, with most of the remainder going on public awareness and things like merchandise which raises additional funds.

If you have seen something you think was a wildcat in the last few years, especially if you got a photo, please report it to us to add to the survey work taking place. We also know that many of our supporters have resources like camera traps or significant field/survey experience, if you think you can organise a small group to carry out some camera trapping please drop us a line at and we can help advise on best practice and where to go to avoid overlapping with other efforts, we very strongly recommend that any such teams include someone with a Mountain Leader qualification as the Highlands can be very dangerous especially in winter, very experienced people die in those picturesque mountains every year so please don’t “have a go”, work with an expert!

Public awareness remains incredibly critical, so few people even in Scotland are really aware of what a wildcat is or how endangered it is, and how important neutering and inoculation of pet cats is. Drop us a line if you think you can help distribute leaflets and make use of your own websites, blogs, Facebooks and Twitters to make people aware of this wonderful cat, especially if you are a breeder of cats! In the coming weeks we will be producing some new awareness images (like the one attached) to easily share around on social networks and the web.

If you lack field expertise but want to get more actively involved, the best route currently can be volunteering with groups such as Cats Protection (, SSPCA ( or the two Cat Action Trust organisations ( and to carry out feral cat neutering and cat rehoming work. Trees for Life ( also occasionally need volunteers to help with planting new forests which is very valuable to wildcats, such work is all part of the total solution we have to bring together.

Finally, a member of the association, Donald Morris, is putting together a meeting of members and other people interested who live in the Highlands, hoping to co-ordinate some ideas like these, get involved by joining the discussion on Facebook, if you aren’t on Facebook e-mail or contact us and we’ll pass on your details to Donald.

What a mammoth update, thanks for reading through it! After a rather slow year or so with Haven on hold it’s been a struggle knowing exactly what to do to proceed things without wasting scant resources and we’re really excited to have the go ahead at last. We expect to have a lot more to update you about in the months ahead as the SNH action plan comes together, results come in from surveys and Haven progresses, our new website should also be launching within a couple of weeks which will be fully updated for the current situation.

Although the wildcat is in a perilous state, we must remember it has miraculously survived centuries of habitat destruction, human persecution and hybridisation, it really wants to be here and we could see a real comeback if everyone can start nudging things back in their favour. So book your pet cat in at the vets to get neutered, encourage friends to do the same, tell your Facebook friends all about the amazing Scottish wildcat that looks a bit like a pet tabby but can survive near Arctic temperatures and beat up German shepherd dogs (as recently as the fifties some naturalists claimed them to be mankillers!), motivate your clan societies (especially Chattan, Mackintosh, Macpherson, Sutherland and the many more with wildcats as their chief’s crest!) to support this critical part of Scotland’s natural and cultural heritage; we can still save the wildcat if we all work together!

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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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