Fewer than 100 Scottish wildcats are now believed to exist in the wild, say leading experts, with no evidence of any decent sized populations anywhere in the country.
While it had been hoped up to 300 may still survive, recent extensive monitoring suggests a lower figure, with individuals or small groups clinging on in isolated and fragmented pockets.
Hopes for saving the species, often referred to as the “tiger of the Highlands”, now largely rest on captive breeding and rewilding, said conservationists, who are working with experts who successfully brought the Iberian lynx back from the brink in Spain and Portugal.
About 80 captive wildcats in zoos, wildlife parks and private collections around the UK now hold the key to the successful re-establishment of viable populations of the muscular brown and black-striped cat, which resembles a domestic tabby.
Genetic testing of all those captive cats was completed in October. Data is now being fed into a new molecular stud book, similar to that used for the giant panda, which will determine which captive cats are related and which are best matched for breeding.
Once the stud book is operational, in the coming months, it will help establish a quantity of the highest quality genetically diverse cats. Mixed with genes from cats already in the wild, through artificial insemination or through capture of the most vulnerable cats, it will produce a population of wildcats suitable for release into the wild.
It is hoped the first trial releases will happen within five years.
The Scottish wildcat is listed as critically endangered. “Next is extinct in the wild and the next is extinct full stop,” said David Barclay, who manages the conservation breeding programme at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, one of several agencies involved in the Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA) conservation plan, backed by Scottish National Heritage.
The main threat has been hybridisation – breeding with feral or domestic cats. Those in the wild tend to have less gene purity than captive cats not exposed to hybridisation.
“The population of wildcats estimated in the wild is horribly low,” said Barclay. One estimate, within the last five years, put the number between 100-300. “To be honest, I think it is under 100,” said Barclay.
Recent camera trap monitoring of six priority sites, thought to be ideal wildcat habitat, revealed just 19 possible cats out of 200,000 images, said Vicky Burns of the SWA.
Captive cats selected for possible release will be transferred to special conservation breeding enclosures. A prototype is currently being tested at the Highland wildlife park within the Cairngorms national park. Placed at least half a mile from the nearest paths, out of view of the public, these large enclosures will gradually allow the cats to be rewilded.
Pairing wild cats with captive cats will introduce wild behaviour, and the gradual introduction of live prey will trigger instinct and perfect skills, it is hoped. Human contact will be at an absolute minimum, with the cats spending up to two years in the enclosures, and their kittens better equipped for wilderness survival.
The breeding plan is not without its critics, who claim capturing wildcats and introducing them to captive cats will kill off the wild population.
Barclay said there was a lack of understanding about the project, and the facts spoke for themselves.
No wildcats would be captured in the six priority areas for fear of harming any populations there. Instead, semen would be taken from adult males. In less hospitable areas, where an isolated cat might be spotted on private land, it made sense to remove it.
“If there is a wildcat just clinging on, surrounded by feral cats, and at high risk from other issues, we want to bring it into captivity, wrap it up in cotton wool and for it to be beneficial to the captive population and a source for further animals that can be released in future,” he said.
“Without the safety net of the captive population, and the semen samples stored, then the future of wildcats is incredibly bleak. I honestly think these insurance policies are the only ones that are going to save the species.”
Along with the planned releases, SWA is undertaking a vast programme neutering feral cats in the priority areas. This would continue. There is evidence from Europe that once a sizable wildcat population is established – perhaps 40 or 50 cats – feral cats stay away, thus reducing future risk of hybridisation.
Another measure is exploring a change in Scottish legislation. Dogs must now have microchips, so one option would be to extend that to domestic cats.
Saving the wildcat will not be cheap. There is Scottish government and lottery funding of £2.5m over five years for initial research and rewilding, but costs will be ongoing. The hope is it will boost local economies and bring in tourist pounds, as well as put Scotland on the global map as a leader in conservation.
“As a country we want to be able to say we care about our landscape, we care about our environment, about the diversity. We do want to conserve our native species, we don’t want to have a country a bit like Australia that has been overrun with no native animals,” said Barclay.
“When we make the decision we don’t really care about our wildlife, or we don’t want to do that project because it is too controversial or it costs too much money, then we are bordering on giving up on the environment in Scotland,” he said.