This blog takes a brief look at what is happening in the world of wildcat conservation, and at the re-introduction of other species with widespread popular appeal, known as “charismatic” species.
The Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan
Urgent action is needed to save Scotland’s remaining wildcats. Numbers are in decline, mainly through hybridisation with domestic cats.
The Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan (2013-19) aims to be the foundation of a plan to restore viable populations. There are currently no reliable population estimates for the number of wildcats in Scotland – they are difficult to see and distinguish from hybrids. Surveys have established that they mainly live north of the Highland Boundary Fault line.
Research in 2014 suggested there were between 100 and 300 Scottish wildcats left, and the results are currently being analysed of a Scottish Wildcat Action survey of priority areas using 347 trail cameras, the largest survey ever conducted for this species.
This Conservation Action Plan is co-ordinated by Scottish Natural Heritage and is owned by the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Group. The plan has been developed in consultation with other experts involved in wildcat conservation.
Scottish wildcats are a European Protected Species and are fully protected under the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 (as amended) or the “Habitats Regulations”, as they are usually referred to.
This means it is an offence to deliberately or recklessly:
- capture, injure, kill or harass a wildcat
- disturb a wildcat in a den or any other structure or place it uses for shelter or protection
- disturb a wildcat while it is rearing or otherwise caring for its young
- obstruct access to a den or other structure or place wildcats use for shelter or protection or otherwise deny the animal use of that place.
Top threats to wildcats and priority conservation actions
Hybridisation, or inter-breeding, is when Scottish wildcats breed with domestic cats or hybrids of the two and produce fertile offspring. This is the main threat to Scottish wildcats, as the offspring are a mixture both in their appearance and genetically. Without intervention, hybridisation could cause the loss of the wildcat as a distinct species.
Other threats include disease, particularly disease spread from feral cats, and accidental persecution if they are confused with feral cats.
Priority areas for wildcat conservation, as well as work to better understand the population status, are
- the neutering and vaccinating of feral cats
- encouraging pet owners to microchip their cats
- working with land managers to train them how to identify wildcats.
A conservation breeding programme has also begun at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland for later releasing into the wild to bolster population numbers.
Re-introduction of other “charismatic” species
There have been broader calls to re-introduce other ‘charismatic’ species, such as beaver and lynx. There are plans under development to re-introduce lynx to the Kielder Forest on the Anglo-Scottish border by the Lynx UK Trust, where six Eurasian lynxes could be imported from Sweden. The Scottish Government is being consulted on this and it is still under consideration.
Legal protection of beavers
In 2009, the first wild beavers were released in Scotland in over 400 years under the Scottish Beaver Trial in Knapdale Forest in Argyll. The Scottish Government announced in 2016 that these beavers will remain in Scotland and are preparing to provide beavers in Scotland with legal protection, subject to a Parliamentary vote. This work ought to be completed by the end of this year. Legal protection would classify beavers as a European Protected Species This means it would be an offence to kill or injure any beaver, or deliberately disturb a beaver during breeding or rearing periods. Breeding and resting sites would also be protected.