RZSS Highland Wildlife Park is pleased to welcome three young Scottish wildcat kittens to the Park. Also known as the Highland Tiger, this incredibly rare, native species is facing the very real threat of extinction due to hybridisation with domestic and feral cats, habitat loss and accidental persecution. However, with coordinated conservation efforts and a new conservation breeding programme for eventual release now established, the future for the species is looking much brighter.
The three young kittens were born at the end of April, but spent the first couple of months safely tucked away in their den with their mother Betidh, only recently starting to wander out and explore their territory. This year’s births add to a long line of successful breeding at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, which has been instrumental in maintaining a healthy captive population which acts as a safety net for the species.
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, along with more than 20 other organisations, is involved in the Scottish Wildcat Action, a partnership project – supported by Scottish Government and the Heritage Lottery Fund – which represents the best chance the wildcat has of surviving in the long term. The project includes many of Scotland’s leading conservationists, working together with local people to save the Scottish wildcat. The Priority Areas Team, which is part of the project, is working hard to reduce the threats that wildcats face in the wild, which includes extensive neutering of feral and poor hybrid cats to prevent further hybridisation, whilst the Royal Zoological Society is undertaking a new conservation breeding programme to build up a robust and sustainable population for future release.
David Barclay, RZSS Cat Conservation Project Officer commented on the recent arrivals: “Without Scottish Wildcat Action the future of the Scottish wildcat is bleak. The team is working hard all over Scotland to ensure measures are put in place to reduce threats, raise awareness and protect the remaining wild population. With such a small and declining population another important element to our action plan is establishing a new conservation breeding programme to increase numbers for future re-introductions. The high standards of husbandry and breeding success from animal keepers at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park are an asset to the breeding programme, and important genes from these new arrivals may one day be represented in released cats roaming the wilds of Scotland.”
Although some similarities with domestic tabby cats exist, the two species are not to be confused. With their big, bushy, black-ringed tail and tenacious behaviour it is no surprise that the Scottish wildcat was used historically in many Highland clan crests. The Scottish wildcat is an incredibly rare and elusive creature, thought to be critically endangered, it is clear there is an immediate need for effective conservation measures across the whole of Scotland. All of the different wildcat species across the world are endangered for similar reasons, however the Scottish wildcat is one of the rarest cats in the world and is probably the nearest to extinction.
The Scottish wildcat is the same subspecies of wildcat as is found in continental Europe, but has been separated from them since the end of the last ice age, over 8000 years ago. Domestic cats originate from Near Eastern (African) wildcats and have been through a process of domestication. Hence they have a quite separate evolutionary history to Scottish wildcats and behave quite differently. Wildcats prefer to live alone but will come together for a short period for breeding, normally then giving birth to around two to three kittens, which the mother will protect fiercely.