A recent study highlighted six areas recommended as priorities for future wildcat conservation work in Scotland. The study comes as part of the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan, which aims to protect our best remaining wildcat populations.
The report detected examples of cats with many typical wildcat features in each of the six locations – Strathbogie (near Huntly), the Angus glens, northern Strathspey, Morvern, Strathavon and Strathpeffer.
However, feral domestic cats and hybrids – crosses between wildcats and domestic cats – were also found, meaning more work must be done to tackle hybridisation, the main threat to wildcats.
More than 30 organisations representing land managers, the Scottish Government and various environmental charities back the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan, which was launched last September.
The new report titled ‘Survey and Scoping of Wildcat Priority Areas’ was produced jointly by researchers at the James Hutton Institute, WildCRU and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS). It details the methods used to select areas of a suitable size for conservation action. The study also examined local support and views on the actions proposed.
Fieldwork used camera traps, scent lures and live-trapping and has provided new insight to the wild-living cats in these areas. A limited sample of cat hair, droppings (or scats) and blood were subject to genetic tests.
The next stage is to reduce risks to wildcats in these six important areas by:
• Co-ordinating an ambitious trap, neuter and release (TNR) programme to neuter all feral and hybrids cats;
• Encouraging cat owners to neuter and vaccinate cats; micro-chipping will also help to make pet cats easily identifiable;
• Working with gamekeepers, farmers and foresters to reduce the risks to wildcats from predator control;
• Monitoring populations to see the benefits of this work.
Jenny Bryce, SNH’s wildlife ecologist, said: “These priority areas give us real opportunity to halt the decline of the Scottish wildcat and preserve its distinctive identity. The Action Plan partners take a pragmatic view – there are good examples of wildcats out there, displaying many of the characteristics of this species. And this is very much the focus of the new Wildcat Action project.
“We have been encouraged by the number and the quality of wildcats that have been observed, given the relatively short duration of the surveys. We think this is indicative of populations persisting more widely.
“But the threats are ever-present and we need to act now to preserve animals that are distinctive as Scottish wildcats. And with the help of people in these communities we aim to do just that.”
Public attitudes surveyed in the report indicate good levels of support for wildcat conservation. Interestingly people did not always recognise the importance of their local area for wildcats.
Local support has also been strengthened by a series of public drop-in sessions in each of the proposed priority areas over the summer. Those attending have been extremely positive and many have volunteered to help with the work when it is underway.
The project will involve local people and sets out to be of lasting benefit to these areas.
Based on indicative genetic tests carried out by the WildGenes laboratory at RZSS, all the wild-living cat samples collected in the last 30 years appear to have some domestic cat genetic markers. Hence the project partners are mindful that the term ‘pure’ wildcat may not be helpful in conservation terms. Dr Rob Ogden, RZSS Head of Science commented:
“We are observing a range of genetic mixes, from feral domestic through to predominantly wildcat. As our DNA tests develop, we are increasingly able to identify individual wildcats with the highest conservation value for the population”.
The survey findings support the view that there are wild-living cats displaying many of the typical wildcat features in these areas. Although some of the best examples caught on camera were not tested for their DNA, some of the cats tested had a high proportion of wildcat genetic markers. Hence a pragmatic view is that our wildcats remain distinctive and are worthy of protection.
The report does not give an estimate of the number of wildcats ‘out there’ as surveys were limited to nine locations, and will only have captured a proportion of the wildcats present.
The project partners recognise there may be wildcats across the Highlands and that the work in the six priority areas will be complemented by other efforts to protect wildcats across their range.
It is hoped the Wildcat Action project will start in earnest in each of these areas at the start of 2015.
Following publication of this report an article appeared in the Observer and the Guardian. You can read our response to this article here.