Last week Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA) convened at Culloden Battlefield for a forum which we had the privilege to attend. As Aigas Field Centre plays a role in the conservation breeding programme it was a great opportunity for us to learn how SWA were getting on elsewhere.
SWA is an action plan supported by the Scottish Government and Heritage Lottery Fund – united by a group of experts with the ultimate goal of saving the UK’s only remaining native feline, the Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris), from extinction.
The ‘Highland Tiger’ appears like a tabby cat but more muscular and has slightly different pelage. The wildcat can be differentiated by having a dorsal stripe that does not extend into the tail, a broad, flat head, and dark rings around a thick, blunt tail. Hybridisation, disease and persecution has led to their decline.
SWA have identified 6 priority areas (Strathbogie, Strathpeffer, Strathspey, Strathaven, Morvern and Angus). Priorities area manager, Dr. Roo Campbell, gave an update on the information which had been collated from this year’s surveying. From the use of volunteers and 347 camera traps around priority areas, it has been estimated that there are between 31 – 36 wildcats (6-7 per priority area).
Wildcats are currently outnumbered 4:1 by hybrids and ferals, and since hybrid offspring are fertile they can further reproduce with domestic cats and reduce the wildcat gene level. Emma Rawling gave a brief talk on one of the ways SWA are targeting this problem by running a scheme called TNVR (trap, neuter, vaccinate, release). They are also encouraging the general public to have a #Supercat. Your domestic cat is said to be a #Supercat if they have been micro-chipped, neutered and vaccinated. Ensuring your cat is neutered will prevent cross breeding with the wildcat. The vaccination will reduce the spread of fatal diseases such as Feline Leukemia and Feline Aids and micro-chipping will mean that if your cat is caught in the field in a trap a volunteer can quickly identify them and return them home.
Author of The Scottish Wildcat, Christopher Clegg, provided the group with insight into the history and persecution of wildcats including information about the impact of medieval hunting, archaeology and culture on the species. He reported that during the 1566 Acte for Preservation of Grayne, which was sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth I, 8,000 wildcats were hunted. In modern times wildcats face accidental persecution by land managers who seek to control feral cat numbers. David Barclay, Andrew Kitchener and Helen Senn provided other relevant and interesting information.
The take home message is that our Highland feline is under threat and, with such a low population, action is needed to bring them back. Here at Aigas we are actively helping by breeding our wildcats and volunteering with SWA in surveying and the TNVR programme. You can help too – if you live in Scotland make sure your cat is a #Supercat and help stop the spread of fatal diseases and protect the wildcats from cross breeding.
Written by Tierney Chalmers and Phil Wilson