Clinging on by a claw: saving wildcats from extinction
Decades of research have identified how and where to boost wildcat numbers.
The wildcat is Scotland’s rarest and most threatened mammal. Once widespread, the species is now on the brink of extinction. A sad history of habitat loss, persecution and crossbreeding with domestic cats has forced the Highland tiger to a point where the population is no longer viable. Without urgent action, wildcats will be lost forever from Britain.
Wildcats in zoos, wildlife parks and private facilities now hold the key to saving their species, enabling captive-bred cats to be restored to the wild. PTES is providing funds for a critical new partnership project called Saving Wildcats. This six-year project, led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, will bring about the urgent action needed to prevent wildcats from becoming extinct in the UK.
Trouble on all fronts
Having lived in the woodlands of Britain for several thousand years, wildcats were a widespread species, at home in our countryside. But with intensification of land use during the Victorian era, wildcats were eradicated from England and Wales by the late nineteenth century. After the end of the first world war, with less gamekeeping activity, wildcats ranged more widely, unfortunately coming into contact with domestic and feral cats. We now know that inbreeding is the biggest threat facing this species.
Breeding wildcats in captivity to bolster wild populations
With as few as 400 wildcats left in the wild, it seemed as though we were facing an impossible challenge to overcome. But luckily decades of research have identified how and where to boost wildcat numbers sufficiently. Along with a neutering programme for feral cats, this work will enable captive-bred populations to hold their own in the wild.
The first step has been to build Britain’s first large-scale breeding centre for wildcats. Situated in a secluded part of the Cairngorms National Park, construction has progressed well and the first cats should start breeding in 2021. Meanwhile, other staff members will be busy ensuring that the right areas for release are identified. It’s not just about suitable habitat but also making sure the local community is enthusiastic and that any threats that could stop the release being successful, are removed. The first group of wildcats should be ready for release into the Scottish wilderness soon, with more releases planned to ensure their numbers remain resilient to pressures, and that wildcats are soon doing more than just clinging on by a claw.
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