Scottish wildcats – giving feisty felines a fighting chance
By Beldina Dow, University of Oxford, on behalf of the RSPB.
Not all that long ago you might have thought twice before wandering off for a nice stroll in Britain’s green and pleasant countryside, with expert predators such as bears, wolves and lynx never too far away. Ask most people now and they would tell you our large carnivores are a thing of the past, present only in legends and stories. However, venture up to the north of Scotland and you might just be lucky enough to see a sizable predator that does remain: the Scottish Wildcat.
Often mistaken for large domestic cats, the Scottish wildcat is characterised by its tiger-like stripes and large bushy tail, which is covered in a good dose of incomplete rings. Unlike our feline pets, they have no white patches and the stripe along their back ends at the base of the spine and does not continue onto the tail. They are mainly active at dawn and dusk, hunting small mammals such as hares, rats and rabbits.
These wildcats used to be wide-ranging across much of Britain, but today a small population of around 400 remain in isolated pockets in northern Scotland. Loss of their traditional forest habitat, persecution by humans, and hybridisation are the main threats facing these magnificent cats today. Deforestation in more southern parts of Britain have forced the cats further north as they seek tree-filled homes, whilst intense hunting on the part of humans left many local populations extinct. That said, perhaps the biggest threat comes from our friendly neighbourhood moggies. Hybridisation refers to breeding between domestic cats and their wildcat relations, resulting in cross-bred kittens. If this continues to happen, pure wildcat bloodlines will be lost and the species will be declared extinct.
All is not lost though. 2013 marked the creation of the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan, which outlined the course of action to protect the wildcats. One of the main participants in this plan is the organisation “WildCRU”, which is part of Oxford University. WIldCRU has set up a number of conservation management techniques whose main aim is to not only protect the wildcats but also to reduce the chance of hybrids spreading through the population. Two key technologies used to do this are camera traps and GPS collars.
Using camera traps, researchers are able to identify pure and crossbred cats far more reliably than by eye alone. This has allowed them to create a more accurate estimate for the population size (167-311 wildcats). The cameras have also allowed them to identify “hybrid hotspots”. They then employ the “Trap Neuter Vaccinate Return” technique, meaning captured crossbreds are unable to breed, thus protecting bloodlines.
GPS collars have also proved incredibly useful, as they show the ranges of individual cats. From this data, researchers found that hybrids were causing even more problems than previously thought, as their distributions overlap with both domestic moggies and the elusive wildcats, meaning they act as a sort of bridge between the species. The consequence of this is that the domestic and wildcats are more likely to interbreed. The GPS data has also allowed key or priority areas of wildcat habitat to be identified and then protected. Further to these areas, corridors connecting them are also being created by protecting strips of land between them to try and make isolated populations a thing of the past.
So, although there’s still a long way to go to ensure the Scottish wildcats survival, the work of groups like WildCRU mean this feisty feline has a fighting chance.
For more information on WildCRU’s wildcat work, visit: https://www.wildcru.org/research/scottish-wildcat-project/
Photos courtesy of the WildCRU website