Cairngorms National Park

Uath Lochans from Farleitter Crag, Kingussie

Project shows way forward for the future of Scottish Wildcat

24th April 2012

Threats remain significant to survival of iconic Scottish species

Conservation Project: Key Achievements

  • Camera traps reveal previously unknown populations of wildcats in parts of the Cairngorms National Park, but highlights the species is scare and still under threat from hybridisation with domestic cats
  • Substantial increase in public awareness of the species
  • Wildcat now in the top three most significant species in terms of public concern for its welfare
  • Public donations fund practical wildcat conservation, research and captive breeding in the Cairngorms National Park
  • Gamekeepers more confident in wildcat identification
  • Increase in number of feral cats neutered in the National Park

Minister for the Environment Stewart Stevenson describes the wildcat as “one of Scotland’s most charismatic and fascinating wild animals”;

An innovative project to save the Scottish wildcat reached its conclusion today (Tuesday 24th April) with the announcement of key achievements and future objectives at a closing conference in Boat of Garten.

The Cairngorms Wildcat Project, based in the Cairngorms National Park, has provided a unique insight into one of Britain’s most endangered and mysterious species that was, without prompt action, threatened with extinction. Scientists estimated there were only around 400 Scottish wildcats, known affectionately as the Highland Tiger, left in the wild. The most significant threat to wildcats is from ‘hybridisation'; or inter-breeding with domestic cats. The project has shed further light on the numbers and distribution of wildcats, feral domestic cats and hybrids.

Dr David Hetherington, from the Cairngorms National Park Authority, led the project. He said: “The Cairngorms Wildcat Project was established to secure the future of this very shy and secretive animal not only within the boundaries of the Cairngorms National Park, which is thought to be a stronghold for the species, but also across a wider area of Scotland.

“Our aims were fourfold; to inspire the public and get them involved in saving the wildcat; to work with land managers to ensure their activities are wildcat friendly; to encourage responsible domestic cat ownership within the Cairngorms National Park; and to carry out research to gain a greater understanding of this wonderful species.”

Sightings of wildcats by the public were also published on a dedicated website www.highlandtiger.com and analysis of carcasses improved understanding about the population.

In total, there were 465 potential wildcat sightings from within and outwith the Cairngorms National Park. The evidence suggests wildcats are very scarce in the eastern side of the National Park (Donside, Deeside & Angus Glens) but do still live in Badenoch & Strathspey, Perthshire and possibly Glenlivet.

Dr Hetherington continues: “Thanks to the public’s support for wildcats and the project itself we now understand better the distribution of wild-living cats and the levels of interbreeding. The use of innovative ‘camera traps’ set up to capture images of passing animals has been particularly helpful in verifying the occurrence of wildcats and hybrids. Wildcats have also been confirmed in some parts of the Cairngorms National Park where they were not previously thought to inhabit.”

The camera traps confirmed that wildcats are found in the same areas as hybrids and feral cats, highlighting that there is a major threat to the continued existence of the species

Cat owners in the Cairngorms National Park were encouraged to participate in voluntary neutering and vaccination programmes of their pets and it is hoped that uptake of these programmes will continue. The efforts of cat welfare charities to promote neutering of feral cats were enhanced through the recruitment and training of new volunteers in key areas of the Cairngorms National Park.

Minister for the Environment Stewart Stevenson said: “This project has completed some very important work in safeguarding the future of the Scottish wildcat. The support of the public and land managers for conservation work in this area is vital if we are to see a recovery from the perilously low numbers of wildcats in the Scottish countryside at present and this project has gone a long way to securing that support.

“The research that has been carried out and the work in reducing the risk of inter-breeding are also key elements in protecting the wildcat – one of Scotland’s most charismatic and fascinating wild animals.”

The project was delivered in partnership between the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and Forestry Commission Scotland. It was funded by SNH’s Species Action Framework with significant contributions from the CNPA and the RZSS.

A recent survey of the Scottish public’s attitude towards nature, which was commissioned by SNH,[i] showed that the number of people identifying the wildcat as the species they most associated with Scotland had almost doubled between 2010 and 2011. The report also highlighted that the Scottish wildcat is now the 3rd most significant species in terms of public concern for its welfare, up from 5th position in 2010.

Significant time was also invested in working with gamekeepers so they could help to monitor wildcat populations. On conclusion of the project, 82% of gamekeepers said they were more confident in their ability to identify a wildcat from a tabby feral cat.

Commenting on the project’s success, Ron Macdonald of SNH, said: “The project was supported by SNH’s Species Action Framework.

“The lessons learned as part of the Cairngorms Wildcat Project can now be taken forward into developing a new action plan for wildcat conservation in Scotland.”

Douglas Richardson from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland said: “The Project has not only raised the profile of the wildcat in Scotland, and therefore increased the likelihood of it being brought back from the brink of extinction, it has demonstrated the practicalities of a model conservation project that could be applied to wildcat conservation in other parts of the world.”

For more information, to make a donation or to record a wildcat sighting, please visit www.highlandtiger.com

Wildcats can be seen at the Highland Wildlife Park: www.highlandwildlifepark.org

Scottish Wildcat: Fact file

Scottish wildcats are the only remaining native member of the cat family in the UK
Wildcats are striped with a thick blunt-tipped tail with distinct black rings and no stripe down the middle of the tail.
Today wildcats are only found north of the central belt in woodland and on the edge of farmland and moorland
They are shy, mostly nocturnal and prey on small mammals, especially rabbits and voles
The main mating season runs from January to March with the female typically having two to four kittens in her litter
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