Scottish wildcats, the only member of the cat family native to Britain that can still be found there, were once common throughout Britain. However, due to persecution and habitat loss, their range steadily got smaller until there was only a small segment left, in northwest Scotland. Despite their challenges, a recent release has many optimistic about the critically endangered species’ future.
Through the multi-agency Saving Wildcats project, 19 wildcats were released this summer into Cairngorms National Park and Cairngorms Connect landscape in the Scottish Highlands. The animals were let out in small groups as part of a soft-release, which involved time in enclosures to allow them to acclimate to their new surroundings. Apart from one fatality, in which a cat died of an infection in the stomach lining, the release appears to have gone well so far.
Dr. Helen Senn, Saving Wildcats Project Lead and Royal Zoological Society of Scotland Head of Science and Conservation Programmes, says, “It is still very early in the process but the first release of wildcats into Britain has been a success so far. Life in the wild is full of risks and while most of the released wildcats are currently doing well, we must remember that these are now wild animals that are likely to face significant challenges as we move into winter, with extreme weather and a decline in natural prey expected.”
According to a recent news release, the cats have largely stayed close to their release sites, but some have ventured further afield. Through GPS collars and camera traps, the team has learned that the cats have been making use of rough grassland, mixed woodland, and riparian habitats, and have been hunting. They also make efforts to avoid people and dogs.
Saving Wildcats says another thing they’ll need to avoid is domestic cats, as breeding between the two has led to a wildcat population that is no longer viable.
Saving Wildcats’ goal is to prevent the species’ extinction in Scotland and to help it recover. Their plan involves establishing a breed for release center, introductions of 20 cats into the wild each year, working to remove threats against the species in the Highlands, and working with communities to help them reap the benefits of the species’ restoration, including through wildlife tourism. Getting landowners on board is also a key part of their work.
While this latest release helps the plan along, there is still a lot to do to help the species recover.
Dr. Senn explains, “These are the first trial releases and, based on experience from similar projects around the world, further releases and many more years of conservation action will be required to increase the likelihood of saving this iconic species in Scotland.”
Next up is a release of 13 new kittens recently born at the program’s breeding center. They’ll have a soft-release next summer.
Wildcats resemble your standard tabby house cat, but they’re a bit stockier, with distinct bands on their tails and other markings that help distinguish them from their domestic brethren or hybrids of the two. The rare species is largely nocturnal, keeping to their dens during the day. Their presence helps keep populations of their prey species in check, which reduces overgrazing and enables plant life to continue to thrive.