As part of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s ongoing series of talks, RSE investigates… conservation, attendees were treated to an in-depth online talk from one of the country’s leading wildcat experts this week.
Dr Helen Senn, geneticist and conservationist with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, gave a talk on the ongoing effort to rehabilitate the population of European wildcats to Scotland.
As a result of habitat loss, persecution and hybridisation, the Highland tiger, as it is also known, is nearing extinction.
Dr Senn explained that the number of wildcats left in the country is now so low that intervention is needed to recover the species, or it will be lost altogether.
A combination of habitat loss – wildcats prefer a patchwork of habitat types that include mixed, broadleaf, and coniferous woodland, grassland and scrub – persecution and hybridisation have all contributed to the dwindling numbers of wildcats in Scotland.
Hybridisation is a serious threat to the future of the wildcat as it effectively risks breeding the species out of existence as the gene pool becomes diluted with pet and feral domestic cats.
Dr Senn explained that the captive breeding programme undertaken by Saving Wildcats is essential to recovering the species. It affords the wildcats a protected space to breed, without interacting with other types of cats, before they are then set loose – tracked and monitored – to hopefully thrive in the wild.
During the 80s and 90s concern started to grow about the population of wildcats, and research began. What has been found over the past years is that what wildcats are left are too few, too spread out and too hybridised with pet and feral domestic cats to recover without help.
Using a wide network of field cameras, Dr Senn and her team have been able to build up a catalogue – aptly named the Cat-a-logue by her team – of the domestic feral cats in the area. Once this picture had been built up, an effort to neuter and vaccinate the domestic feral cats in the area followed. The reason is to essentially clear the way for the released wildcats so they can have the best possible start.
The recent release of 20 wildcats is the result of three years of work by the Saving Wildcats project, against a backdrop of almost a decade of collaborative work by partners of Scottish Wildcat Action and the Highland Tiger Project, in conjunction with a vast array of other groups, lead by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.
Around 20 captive-bred wildcats will be released this summer, with plans for 20 more in 2024, and a further 20 in 2025.
While the wildcat plan has already learned much from other projects, not least the reintroduction of the Iberian lynx in Spain, the true measure of success will be if the wildcats are found to be successfully reproducing in the wild here in Scotland. They are all fitted with tracking collars, so that their early progress after release can be monitored.
If you would like to know more about the project, or to lend your support, visit www.savingwildcats.org.uk