Sometimes called Scotland’s forgotten cat, this truly wild species is on the brink of extinction. These animals may look a bit like your pet tabby but they are in fact described as being: ‘incredibly tough super-predators capable of surviving Scotland’s harshest winters, battling eagles and drawing the admiration of men who bested entire empires.’ Not convinced? Yeah us neither, but apparently they go way back in Scotland’s history to the earliest settlers, who wove them into legends that were later incorporated onto clan crests.
Today some estimates put the number of ‘pure’ wildcats in existence at a few dozen. Back in 2012 the BBC reported that of a record of 2,000 hybrids and wildcats looked at by the Scottish Wildcat Association (SWA) team, less than 20 were deemed to comply with the accepted coat-marking identifiers of the true wildcat.
When it comes to humans, these cats are extremely fearful, doing almost anything to avoid us. But it is not only interaction with man and the subsequent habitat loss that are affecting the species. Disease and inter-breeding with domestic and feral cats are among the most serious threats to the numbers of pure-bred wildcats roaming the Scottish Highlands.
How can we save them? The Wildcat Haven was ‘designed by an international team of conservation, wildlife and animal welfare experts as a comprehensive range of fieldwork actions that could protect the wildcat from extinction and support the natural rebuilding of the population, entirely in-situ, in the wilds of the Scottish West Highlands.’ They work to identify areas where “potential wildcats” live, and have carried out an ambitious trap-neuter-return programme for domestic cats in order to bring their numbers, and the diseases they carry, under control. In this way, over an eight year period, they protected almost 500 square miles of remote West Highlands for Scottish wildcats, with huge support from the local community.
“A lot of people were saying ten years ago it just wasn’t possible to remove the domestic cat threat but we’ve shown it can be done,” says the project’s chief scientist, Dr Paul O’Donoghue.