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Wildcat conservation in the Cairngorms

15th April 2008

Wildlife experts, land managers, tourism operators, vets and cat welfare groups are among those gathering in Aviemore today (Tuesday 15 April) for a major conference in a bid to save the Scottish wildcat from extinction. The event marks the first step in the design of a practical wildcat conservation project in the Cairngorms National Park.

There has been a significant decline in the number of Scottish wildcat over the last few decades and it is now one of our most threatened species. The Cairngorms National Park is an important stronghold for this elusive mammal and across the Park are examples of the wildcat’s cultural links with the area.

Today’s event is aimed at generating widespread support across a range of sectors to raise awareness of the plight of this iconic Scottish species and ultimately protect it from extinction. The conference will act as an exchange, not only of the latest scientific information but also of local, practical knowledge of wildcats and options for their conservation.

The conference is organised by the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA), the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA), the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), Tooth & Claw and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

Eric Baird, vice-convener of the CNPA and chair of the conference said: “The current number of wildcats remains uncertain but we know the prognosis is not good with some estimates putting the population at a mere 400 individuals left in the wild. The biggest threat to the existence of the Scottish wildcat is thought to be hybridisation with feral domestic cats.

“We want to raise awareness of the plight of the Scottish wildcat and explore the implementation of a range of practical conservation actions to save this Scottish icon. We don’t have all the answers at this time but today is an important first step in finding them.”

From icons to ecology and from pet cats to feral cats, delegates are being asked to consider and explore all the information and tools available that could contribute to a practical wildcat conservation project

Allan Hodgson of the SGA said: “The SGA is supportive of the project and keen to be involved. Gamekeepers working on-the-ground are in a position to be able to contribute a great deal from providing information on wildcat sightings to feral cat management. We carry out feral cat control as part of our predator management activities and would suggest that keeping feral cat numbers in check contributes to a reduction in hybridisation. We could certainly work more closely with members to increase awareness of wildcat identification so there is absolutely no risk to the species.”

Neutering feral cats and vaccinating them against disease, as well as the promotion of responsible domestic cat ownership is also on the conference agenda.

Jane Harley, a vet based in the Cairngorms National Park said: “I think that most people acknowledge that interbreeding is the biggest risk to wildcats but many won’t have considered the serious risk to wildcats from diseases, which can be prevalent in feral cats. The feline leukaemia virus, for example, is a highly contagious cat disease which can be vaccinated against. For those domestic cat owners – who would like to play their part in protecting the wildcat – my advice is to have their pet cats neutered and ensure that all vaccinations are up-to-date.”

SNH is currently carrying out the biggest wildcat survey in 20 years, aimed at charting the current health and distribution of the native population across Scotland.

Mairi Cole of SNH commented: “The Scottish wildcat is one of the species in the Species Action Framework and is under threat from both man-made and environmental pressures. SNH is supporting the Scottish Wildcat Survey to gain a better understanding of the distribution and abundance of the species across Scotland but this needs to be supported by practical management and a better awareness of its plight, to help provide the best opportunities for their future. We look forward to working closely with land managers towards this.”

Dr David Hetherington, Ecology Advisor at the CNPA added: “The habitat and prey availability makes the Cairngorms National Park an important area for the Scottish wildcat. However, the wildcat is important for the Cairngorms too and people here identify with the species’ wild and untameable spirit, which is why it’s used as an icon by local clans, villages, groups and businesses. We hope that by working in partnership with a range of organisations and the public we can reverse the Scottish wildcat’s fortunes.”