Amidst hybridisation and habitat disruption, the ‘Highland tiger’ is clinging on by a claw.

Conservationists are clashing over the best way to save the critically endangered Scottish wildcat – with some believing the animal's genetic survival is ‘no longer viable.’

Tuesday, September 8, 2020,
By Jonathan Manning
A male Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris) in heather, Cairngorms National Park. Insidiously disappearing into the gene pool of ...

A male Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris) in heather, Cairngorms National Park. Insidiously disappearing into the gene pool of domestic cats, according to some estimates there may be as few as 35 genetically pure individuals left in the wild in Scotland – making this regional variant of the European wild cat amongst the most endangered animals in the world. 

Photograph by Avalon/Photoshot License / Alamy

Stealthy and elusive, the Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris), has found itself thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight. Britain’s rarest mammal, dubbed the ‘Highland tiger’, prowls at the heart of an angry debate over the best way to protect its survival. 

The battleground in this lengthy dispute is the 6,300-hectare Clashindarroch Forest in Aberdeenshire, one of the last remaining strongholds of the highly endangered Scottish wildcat. 

According to Dr Paul O’Donoghue, Chief Scientific Adviser and Director of Wildcat Haven, a community interest company established to campaign for the protection of the critically endangered animal, 13 of the remaining 35 pure wildcats live in Clashindarroch Forest – with the large, continuous woodland proving an ideal habitat for the secretive predator.

Forestry and Land Scotland activities at Clashindarroch, in Aberdeenshire. Felling on the site has attracted controversy due to the importance of the forest to a critical population of Scottish wildcats believed to be genetically undisturbed by interbreeding with domestic cats.   

Photograph by Ian Rutherford / Alamy

Clashindarroch Forest's felling has been defended by Forestry and Land Scotland, who asserted they “only fell trees following detailed site surveys to identify any dens or lying up areas which may be being used by wildcats.” Logpiles are also monitored for activity – but some conservation groups argue this isn't enough. 

Photograph by Ian Rutherford / Alamy

Yet as a commercial woodland, the forest is subject to logging operations. About 90 hectares of timber – 1.3% of the forest – is cut annually. Forestry and Land Scotland’s new land management plan for Clashindarroch proposes felling 5.2% of the trees over the next five years, and thinning across 29% of the forest area. 

“If there were giant pandas in Clashindarroch, it wouldn’t be getting chopped down. Yet the Scottish wildcat is 70 times rarer than the panda,” says O’Donoghue. The perilous position of the wildcat has garnered huge grassroots support, with over 800,000 people signing a petition calling on Forestry Commission Scotland to stop felling trees at Clashindarroch Forest. 

“We want to see this site designated for protection given the important species present there,” says O’Donoghue. 

A Scottish wildcat photographed in pinewoods, Cairngorms National Park. Markings, or 'pelage', are a key way of differentiating a true wildcat with a domestic hybrid – though the lines are often far from clear.

Photograph by Peter Cairns / Alamy

This groundswell of support from the UK’s largest ever wildlife petition has been matched at intergovernmental level, with the Secretariat of the Bern Convention writing to Defra to ask the UK Government to respond to a complaint from Wildcat Haven that alleges a failure “to conserve and protect the Scottish Wildcat.” The Bern Convention is a powerful, binding international treaty designed to protect species and habitats, and it lists the Scottish Wildcat as a ‘strictly protected species’. 

A spokesperson for Forestry and Land Scotland told National Geographic that Clashindarroch is a productive forest, managed sustainably to internationally recognised standards – and one where wildcats have successfully co-existed with forest management activities for many years.

“We manage it to maintain a structurally diverse habitat that supports a very significant amount of biodiversity, whilst also enabling the forest to fulfil its other varied roles including supplying high quality timber,” they said. 

This stewardship also involves “carrying out a huge range of actions to conserve wildcats and other important species such as red squirrels, woodland grouse and birds of prey,” added the spokesman. 

On the ground this translated, for example, to a cessation of felling work at the end of February 2020 and a halt to timber extraction in March, although timber haulage work continued, with log stacks monitored by cameras to ensure wildcats have not used them to make dens.

“We only fell trees following detailed site surveys to identify any dens or lying up areas which may be being used by wildcats and will modify or postpone operations where there is evidence of their presence,” said the spokesperson.

One of a pair of orphaned Scottish wildcat kittens found in a ditch in 2018. The kittens were rescued by Wildcat Haven and photographed by Joel Sartore for the National Geographic Photo Ark project.   

Photograph by Joel Sartore / National Geographic Photo Ark

Wildcat Haven insists the entire forest should remain untouched, arguing that any disturbance threatens the breeding success and survival of the wildcat.

“Wildcats are territorial, they do not wander freely through the forest, they live in strictly protected territories that are defended – to the death sometimes,” says O’Donoghue. And if sightings and camera trap images are few and far between, that is all due to the elusive nature of the feline predator, he adds.

“We should respect this animal for being able to remain undiscovered in a human dominated world,” says O’Donoghue.

Last of its kind

Slightly larger than a domestic cat, the Scottish wildcat weighs up to 8kg and measures as long as 98cm. It preys primarily on rabbits and tends to hunt at dawn and dusk, but can be active throughout the day and night within its territory. The hunter builds dens among rocky boulders, in tree hollows and in dense scrub, or ‘squats’ in fox earths, badger setts and rabbit burrows.

The wildcat is the only remaining indigenous felid in Britain, and its presence is now restricted to locations in Aberdeenshire, Inverness-shire, Morvern, Perthshire and the central Highlands. Scottish wildcat populations have withered in the face of four principal threats – habitat loss, persecution and, above all, hybridisation with and disease transfer from feral and domestic cats. In July 2020 the Mammal Society published the first 'red list' of British mammals, listing the wildcat as 'Critically Endangered'; the only other British mammal with the status was the greater mouse-eared bat. 

Cross-breeding with cats has diluted the purity of wildcat DNA to the point where it faces genetic extinction, according to a recent study published in Evolutionary Applications. It found that, “Contemporary wild‐living cat populations within Scotland consist of a genetic continuum between Felis silvestris and Felis catus and that this was not the historical situation.The data are… strongly indicative that there has been a recent acceleration in hybridisation.”

“All the robust information available indicates that the wildcat in Scotland is at the verge of extinction.”

Scottish Wildcat Action

To arrest this alarming decline, in 2015 Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA), a large partnership of NGOs, academics and public bodies, implemented a five-year trap, neuter, vaccinate and return (TNVR) programme for feral and hybrid cats in five priority areas, including Clashindarroch, to minimise the risk of hybridisation with pure wildcats. Yet armed with new surveillance technology – both remote camera traps and genetic testing – SWA eventually reached the conclusion that the situation was worse than anticipated.

Identity crisis

Dr Roo Campbell, SWA Priority Areas Project Manager, says, “We definitely have a small number of cats that look like wildcats, but in the last survey in three of our priority areas over the winters of 2017-19, we detected 14 cats that were assessed as wildcats based on pelage, of which only a couple ticked all the boxes.” 

Wild cat country, Scotland. While once widespread across the Highlands in environments such as this – above Newtonmore in the Cairngorms National Park – the Scottish wildcat's population is now so decimated it exists wild in only a few scattered pockets of forest.

Photograph by Andy Sutton / Alamy

Pelage, or fur markings, is one of two methods (the other is genetic testing) to distinguish wildcats from hybrids and domestic cats. Wildcats have a broad, dark-ringed, blunt-tipped tail and unbroken stripes along their flanks and hindquarters, as well as distinctive stripes on the nape of the neck and shoulders. Conservationists assess the cats across seven pelage criteria, judging each criterion out of three. To identify a pure wildcat, SWA was looking for a score of at least 17, and ideally 19 out of a maximum 21.

Extrapolating SWA’s results across Scotland would “suggest about 200 individual wildcats, or 40 if you took the strictest scores,” adds Campbell. “It became clear to us that because the situation was so perilous there was only so much we could do without the reintroduction or translocation of wildcats in captivity. All the [TNVR] work we were doing would come to no good because the wildcat would decline anyway.”

Camera traps have become the device of choice for capturing activity of Scottish wildcats – and its genetic variants. This cat, photographed in Glen Isla, Angus, is a probable wildcat-domestic cat hybrid male. 

Photograph by Minden Pictures / Alamy

University of Oxford's WildCru researcher Kerry Kilshaw examines camera trap images of a suspected Scottish wildcat captured in pinewoods. As part of the Scottish Wildcat Action partnership, Kilshaw is leading research on the ecology of the wildcat and the role GPS collars can play in the management of its conservation.  

Photograph by Sebastian Kennerknecht/ Minden Pictures

Animal populations of fewer than 50 individuals are considered to have a high risk of extinction due to random, unpredictable events, such as harsh winters or disease. 


‘Too late’ to conserve

With the plan A of TNVR seemingly doomed to failure, SWA commissioned the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Cat Specialist Group (IUCN) to assess its data and offer a second opinion on its conclusion that the population of pure Scottish wildcats is unsustainable. The IUCN’s report pulled no punches.

“All the robust information available indicates that the wildcat in Scotland is at the verge of extinction,” it said. “Based on the available information, we consider the wildcat population in Scotland to be no longer viable. The number of wildcats is too small, the hybridisation too far advanced and the population too fragmented. We therefore conclude that it is too late to conserve the wildcat in Scotland as a stand-alone population.”

To avoid wildcat extinction, the IUCN advocated a reintroduction programme combined with reinforcement projects to control the risk of hybridisation with feral and hybrid cats, as well as the introduction of wildcats from continental Europe to breed with pure Scottish wildcats. 

These objectives are at the heart of Saving Wildcats, a new project launched at the end of last year by a group of SWA partners, led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS).

Dr Martin Gaywood, Species Projects Manager, Scottish Natural Heritage, says, “Saving Wildcats will concentrate on the conservation breeding of wildcats from zoos and wildlife parks, and potentially also sourcing wildcats from Europe, then releasing them at a prepared site. The idea is that if we can release enough wildcats we will end up with a viable population, admittedly at a local level, but it’s a starting point.”

The the degree to which Scottish wildcat individuals may be genetically hybridised with the domestic cat (Felis catus) has been a heated point of discussion amongst conservationists – and critical to understanding the genetic health of the wild population. Here Scottish Wildcat Action project staff learn about Scottish wildcat pelage markings through examining pelts at National Collections Centre, Edinburgh.  

Photograph by Nature Picture Library / Alamy

If the project proves successful, the new population will be a bridgehead for the expansion and dispersal of wildcats throughout Scotland. The selection and preparation of the new release site is being led by David Barclay, Ex-situ Conservation Manager, RZSS.

“We have looked at a number of areas and we are now focusing on sites in the Cairngorms National Park, which has been one of the last strongholds of wildcats,” he says. The release site will not be fenced, but it will be closely assessed for prey availability, threats of hybridisation and disease from feral cats, and the risk of accidental persecution.

“If there were giant pandas in Clashindarroch, it wouldn’t be getting chopped down. Yet the Scottish wildcat is 70 times rarer than the panda.”

Paul O’ Donoghue

“Restoring a species releasing animals into the wild is a 10 to 20-year vision so we have to try to future proof what we do now to make sure that any site we choose now is suitable for expansion or the dispersal of animals,” says Barclay.

He is overseeing the construction of a dedicated breeding facility for Scottish wildcats, which should welcome its first animals next January. “We will go through the breeding season next year with the aim of releasing the first cats in 2022,” says Barclay.

Early captive breeding initiatives were shadowed by claims that the kittens were hybrids, not pure wildcats, and were consequently neutered. But Barclay says that between 2015, when RZSS took over the captive breeding programme, and 2017 “all the breeding cats were screened to test for hybridisation by our genetics lab.”

A wild cat makes off with a mountain hare prey on a forest path in the Cairngorms, Scotland. 

Photograph by Chris Wallace / Alamy

Cats with insufficient wildcat genes were removed from the breeding programme, and since 2015 there have been 32 wildcat births at the Highland Wildlife Park and Edinburgh Zoo. All are still alive and none have been neutered, as the captive population has increased from 65 in 2015 to 106 by April 2020.

The next challenge will be to rear and release wildcats from the new breeding facility into the wild, with Saving Wildcats learning lessons from projects such as the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret, and especially the reintroduction of the Iberian lynx.

‘The epitome of wilderness’

However, Wildcat Haven’s O’Donoghue rejects the very idea of a captive breeding programme and denies the description of the Scottish wildcat as ‘no longer viable’. He insists that it’s not too late to protect and conserve the remaining wildcat population in their current habitats, and says a native population of 35 to 40 genetically diverse, pure wildcats is more than sufficient to rebuild numbers. His solution is a comprehensive national survey to identify wildcat presence, followed by strict protections to prevent logging and disturbance, allied to an intensive neutering programme for hybrid and feral cats in the area.

“To get out and survey Scotland for one of the most elusive cats in the world is difficult, and to protect that animal in situ is difficult – not impossible. But it is well worth the effort,” says O’Donoghue.

“Scotland without any wild wildcats just wouldn’t be Scotland. It wouldn’t feel the same to walk through a Scottish forest without wildcats in it. The wildcat epitomises wilderness; they are ferocious, virtually untameable and to put that animal into a reasonably small cage for a conservation strategy is an enormous risk – and unjustifiable.”

Update: At a meeting of the Bureau of the Bern Convention on 15-16 September 2020, the Bureau dismissed the complaint raised by Scottish Wildcat Haven that the devolved government in Scotland had failed: “to comply with the obligations to conserve and protect the endangered Scottish wildcat species.”

In its verdict, the Bureau acknowledged the poor conservation status of the Scottish wildcat, but ruled that, “The actions of the government appeared to be the only realistic solution to save the species: to repopulate it in captivity and eventually reintroduce it in the wild.” 

The Bureau said there had been “no clear breach of the Convention,” and supported the government strategy, but it also urged authorities to cooperate with Scottish Wildcat Haven and the IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group “in order to share expertise and elaborate joint action plans.”

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