Scottish Wildcat Conservation: Is the Clue in the Name?

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Figure 1. Scottish Wildcats may look similar to your average moggy – but they are a wild and endangered species! Image by Peter Trimming, via Wikimedia Commons.

During the Conservation Science mid-term conference on 27th October, Christie Paterson told us about the Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia), a species native to Britain whose populations have been in decline. This has been caused primarily by human activities, including hunting  in the past and the expansion of settlements into Wildcat habitat. More recently, interbreeding with domestic or feral cats has exacerbated Wildcat decline. Population estimates suggest there are now only 35-400 Scottish Wildcats left in the wild, making them a Critically Endangered species. This is in stark contrast to their close relative, the European Wildcat, which is classified by the IUCN as Least Concern. So what is being done to prevent this?

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Figure 2. Wildcats are hunters, as this 1902 painting by Archibald Thorburn shows – but they themselves were once hunted by humans.

Two of the main organisations involved in this task, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), run by the Scottish Government, and Wildcat Haven (WH), part of the Scottish Wildcat Association, have different ideas for conserving this species. This has created controversy with respect to the “best” course of action for conserving Wildcats.

SNH’s plan  is to work towards a goal of preventing Wildcat decline in the Scottish Highlands within the next 4 years. They have established 6 areas where land management practices are to be changed, in order to aid Wildcat populations. Many of these are near the Cairngorms National Park, close to reported Wildcat sightings. Due to tourism in this area, awareness can be easily raised and funding for the project increased. This is particularly true at the Highland Wildlife Park where captive breeding programmes have been established. Evidence from other species suggests, however, that this strategy may not work  when individuals are introduced back into the wild. How successful captive breeding programmes will be in the Wildcats therefore remains to be seen.

Contrastingly, WH is working on a more localised scale. They have found a 350m2 area of isolated habitat in the West of Scotland, where there is a known concentration of Wildcats. WH works with people who live in this area to gain insightful local knowledge and educate them about best conservation practices. Furthermore, they have also embarked on a project to conserve Wildcats in the wild, rather than in zoos. During this process researchers humanely trap cats and take samples to distinguish between pure and feral individuals. This allows them to see if other factors such as disease are affecting pure Wildcats, and to initiate a neutering programme on feral cats to reduce the risk of hybridization.

Both projects are already live and in-progress, so conservation action is ongoing even as you read this blog! While it’s reassuring to know the decline of the Scottish Wildcat is being taken seriously, the two strategies are very distinct and it’s difficult to decide which, if any, is “better”. Time will tell whether the clue to the more successful conservation approach was in the Wildcat’s name all along.

By Cameron Campbell

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