A new action plan to reverse the decline of the Scottish wildcat within six years was launched on the 24th September by Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse.
It sets out for the first time a package of measures that a range of land managers, conservationists, and researchers agree has the best prospect for the Highland Tiger.’ The aim is to conserve Scottish wildcats by reducing the chances of cross breeding with domestic and feral cats and by lowering the risk to wildcats from feline diseases.
Efforts will be targeted in areas which support the most viable wildcat populations. And a conservation breeding programme will be set up to reinforce wild populations in the future. Scientists will also carry out further research to improve understanding of wildcat ecology and genetics.
Scottish wildcat © Allan Sumner, from the surfbirds galleries.
The plan was developed by a lengthy list of organisations and experts and partner organisations will be key in helping to deliver many elements of the plan including gamekeepers; vets; land managers and farmers. It represents more than £2 million in investment. Partners are currently pursuing funding avenues to ensure sufficient backing throughout the lifetime of the plan. By 2019 the partnership project aims to have:
Identified and secured at least five stable populations of Scottish wildcats in the wild;
Promoted in these areas greater awareness of the threats to wildcats from feral cats, domestic cats and hybrids;
Ensured that householders and others in wildcat hot spots’ recognise the importance of having their cats neutered and vaccinated.
A better understanding of wildcat distribution, numbers and the extent of hybridisation with domestic cats.
The scale of coordinating trapping, neutering and vaccination of feral cats and hybrids has not previously been attempted on such a scale in Scotland.
Speaking before the launch in Edinburgh, Mr Wheelhouse said: “The Scottish wildcat is an iconic species that is emblematic of the wild parts of Scotland. As a society we have a legal and moral obligation to try and conserve the species, so that it continues to be part of our natural heritage for generations to come.
“Clearly great concern has been expressed to me and my predecessors about the decline in Scottish wildcat numbers and, while it is difficult to accurately estimate numbers for what is such an elusive animal, we have now set ourselves the target of halting the decline of the wildcat by the end of the decade and in the longer term we would hope that the steps we will take can help this marvellous animal stage a recovery.
“The Scottish Wildcat Action Plan builds on the good work already undertaken and existing expertise and understanding of the Scottish wildcat. The success of the plan will depend not just on the project partners but on the uptake by individuals, such as gamekeepers, farmers, and, crucially, we will rely heavily on the assistance of Scotland’s cat owners in preventing hybridisation of the species.”
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and The Aspinall Foundation are leading on developing plans for a conservation breeding programme. This will draw on existing captive collections where suitable animals exist. It will also likely require that wildcats are taken from the wild under licence from SNH with the specific purpose of breeding for conservation reintroductions. Careful consideration has been given to this issue given the status of wild populations. A well-planned breeding programme is expected to complement support of the wild population and deliver conservation benefits.
Ron Macdonald, SNH’s head of policy and advice, stressed: “We at Scottish Natural Heritage have coordinated this plan and we will work closely with the Scottish Government and our partners to monitor its effectiveness. This is an effective partnership of many quite separate organisations who represent a range of interests.
“We are all committed to conserving this rare and elusive species. And though we do not currently have reliable estimates for the number of wildcats remaining in the wild, everyone agrees there is now some urgency to address the threats they face.
“We recognise this, and work is already underway to identify the wildcat priority areas and to find out more about the genetic make-up of wild-living cat populations.”
Well-known wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan, who captured remote camera images of tigers living in the Himalayas for the BBC series Lost Land of the Tiger, has yet to film Scottish wildcats in the wild. Backing the scheme, he said: “I have spent time in the Scottish Highlands trying to catch a glimpse of this elusive and fascinating predator, and I would like to add my voice to the chorus saying that we need to do all we can to preserve our native wildcats.
“It is heartening to see the new efforts to save this creature which deserves its place in the pantheon of Scottish species.”
Rob Ogden from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland said: “Continuing to conserve populations in the wild is the priority, but as a safety net we want to develop a breeding programme designed to reinforce the natural population through the release of cats fully prepared for life in the wild.
“Of course before we start thinking about releasing animals we need to first address the factors that are currently threatening wild populations.”
Announcing the first stage of Heritage Lottery funding, Colin McLean, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Scotland, said: “This year, the Year of Natural Scotland, brings into focus the natural beauty and biodiversity that surrounds us. We have some incredible native wildlife in Scotland but our species and habitats are under constant threat. The plight of the Scottish wildcat is well known and has now reached a critical stage. With this action plan and the Heritage Lottery Fund support announced today, we hope communities across the country will be inspired and empowered to safeguard the existence of this rare and elusive creature.”