The current situation
The Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris), an iconic species often referred to as the ‘tiger of Scotland’, faces many threats to its survival, including hybridisation through breeding with domestic cats, habitat loss and disturbance, diseases, road collisions, and persecution from humans. Britain’s only remaining native cat species, the Scottish wildcat was once widespread across Britain. Now, however, they are incredibly rare and can only be found in the Scottish Highlands. This elusiveness means it is difficult to study the wildcat populations; meaning estimates of the number of individuals remaining may not be wholly accurate, but current suggestions using camera-trapping technology are between 100-300 individuals (Kilshaw et al., 2014). Some conservationists have even declared them to be functionally extinct and no longer a viable population.
While wildcats hunt in a variety of habitats, their preferred habitat is woodland areas, living at the edges around mountains and moorlands, preying on smaller mammals such as rabbits and mice. The deforestation of the British Isles has, therefore, led to habitat loss and fragmentation, reducing hunting grounds and shelter for the species, as well as isolating the current populations. This isolation reduces the chances of mating, as well as impeding gene flow, which can lead to inbreeding and reduced genetic diversity.
There is current action, both direct and indirect, being undertaken to help wildcat populations. The national push to increase woodland cover across Scotland will provide more habitat, as well as hopefully creating corridors between existing habitats and populations. There are also wide-scale education and awareness programs aimed at getting the public to neuter and vaccinate domestic cats, including feral individuals, to prevent the spread of feline parasites and diseases such as feline leukaemia virus and Toxoplasma gondii, a fatal endoparasitic disease. The program would also help to reduce hybridisation, a threat that can lead to the dilution of wildcat genes, potentially causing genetic extinction.
There are also several captive breeding programs, including a ‘breed and release’ centre situated in the Highlands, hoping to increase population size and the overall genetic diversity of the wild population. There is criticism of this approach, however, due to the high mortality rate of similarly ‘captive-bred and released’ European wildcats in Germany during the 1980s. These 129 reintroduced individuals were monitored using radio telemetry and sightings from locals. It was found that most died within the first few weeks following their release, mainly from road collisions. Only an estimated 20-30% were thought to have survived (Büttner and Worel, 1990).
It is also thought that reintroduction alone is not enough to save the species, particularly much of Scotland does not have suitable habitat to support the expansion of the wildcat population. Additionally, Scottish wildcats still face persecution from farmers and landowners, predominantly due to the inability of many people to tell them apart from feral cats that are a known problem to rearers of game birds. While Scottish wildcats are protected by law, feral cats and hybrids are not, meaning that mistaken identity can often lead to the death of that individual. Scottish Wildcat Action is, therefore, working with landowners and managers to try to encourage the use of cage trapping rather than snaring and shooting, to allow for accurate species determination before any action is taken. They are also encouraging the use of camera traps to inform landowners whether wildcats are present within the area.
One plan of action currently being discussed is the expansion of the wildcat’s territory to England and Wales. Wildwood Trust, partnering with the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Vincent Wildlife Trust, aims to reintroduce the species into English woodland, with breeding sites in Kent and Devon. It is hoped that these reintroductions will help the Scottish populations become viable, preventing the extinction of the species.
Buttner, K. and G. Worel. 1990. Wiedereinburgerung des europaischen Wildkatze in Bayern-ein Projekt des Bundes Naturschutz in Bayern. Waldhygiene, 18, pp. 169-176
Kilshaw, K., Johnson, P. J., Kitchener, A. C., and Macdonald, D., 2014. Detecting the elusive Scottish wildcat Felis silvestris silvestris using camera trapping. Oryx, 49(2), pp. 207-215
Learn more about this author:
Are you looking for an established platform to post blog content about sustainability, ecology or conservation? Submit your content for the chance to be featured on our blog and other platforms!