David is the Cat Conservation Project Officer for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and manages the conservation breeding programme for Scottish Wildcat Action.
Latest News - The journey of last year's litter of Scottish wildcat kittens
Announcing new births to the public is always an exciting time for those of us who work in zoological collections. The animal keepers work tirelessly throughout the year ensuring animal enclosures are clean, complex, enriching and refurbished on a regular basis to provide new stimuli for the animals that will encourage the full repertoire of natural behaviours. On top of this there are daily visual health checks, animal training and a varied, natural diet that ensures the animals are not only in great physical condition but their welfare is paramount, which all play a key role in future successful breeding. As we move through April and into May (the main birthing season for wildcats), keepers wait eagerly for any subtle changes in behaviour that give the first indication of any females that may give birth.
As any zoo manager will tell you, the breeding of any small cat species is challenging and should collections have success then this is usually down to the skill, experience and setup of any given zoological institution. Looking back over the last few years at the track record of breeding carnivore species at the Highland Wildlife Park, it is clear to see that the animal department and its staff are not only highly experienced but completely focused on the welfare and husbandry of all its animals. Although there have been regular breeding successes with the Amur tigers, European wolves, European lynx, Pallas’s cats (regarded as the most challenging small cat species to breed) and, more recently, the wolverine, we should look at specifically at the Scottish wildcat given our breeding for release strategy.
Photo: Juvenile Scottish wildcat at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park. (A. Riddell/RZSS).
As the Scottish wildcat studbook coordinator I can tell you first hand from studbook data that in the last five years there have been 17 wildcat kittens born at the Highland Wildlife Park. Of these 17 kittens two have since died, one after being transferred to another collection and one earlier this year following a routine health check where it was found that it had a congenital defect in the form of a hepatic shunt. It is always a sad occasion when any new born animal doesn’t make it, but knowing that routine health checks and screenings allow us to address any health issues quickly and effectively is reassuring.
Importantly, the breeding success rate at the Highland Wildlife Park with Scottish wildcats over the last five years sits at 88%, something that all staff should be proud of. Since the six wildcat births in 2015 (five of which are still surviving), there have been a number of developments here at the Park as we constantly strive to enhance the facilities and population for this iconic native species. A third enclosure has since been built to provide more space, choice, separation areas (if needed), public viewing and den sites. This enclosure, like the others, is interconnected by overhead walkways, which not only provide unique viewing for the public, but more importantly raised vantage points for the cats, which they make full use of. In addition to these changes, we have since exchanged a breeding male with Aigas Field Centre to ensure that both collections can continue breeding through different blood lines, increasing the genetic diversity of the population.
Photo: New "on show" wildcat enclosure at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park (D. Barclay/RZSS).
Given that this male is unrelated to our females, he will be given the choice to mate with one of our adult females and her daughter from 2015 over the next twelve months. Other transfers include two of the males from 2015 that were moved to Alladale Wilderness Reserve, where they have each been successfully introduced to separate unrelated females with the aim of future breeding. The final two kittens from 2015 (now juveniles), one male and one female, are still housed at the Park and will soon be sent off to other zoological collections where they too will be paired with unrelated animals for future breeding. It is important to mention, however, that despite the impressive breeding successes at the Park, the wildcat captive studbook and breeding programmes cannot function through one collection alone. Instead, it is the collaboration and joint efforts of all Scottish wildcat holders throughout the UK that make it what it is.
Through population management, animal exchanges, research, conservation support and education, Scottish wildcat holders are not only safeguarding this critically endangered native species, they are playing their role in a conservation strategy that gives new hope to the future of wild living Scottish wildcats.
Scottish Wildcat Action is the first national project to save the highly endangered Scottish wildcat from extinction. It is a partnership involving over 20 organisations, including, Scottish Natural Heritage, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), Cairngorms National Park Authority, Forestry Commission Scotland, National Museums Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. It is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund and Scottish Government, as well as its partners.
See www.scottishwildcataction.org for more information.
This content was made possible by our Partners & Funders at Royal Zoological Society of Scotland