The results are in from our extensive survey of five of the wildcat priority areas. We now know a lot more about where cats are in the wild, whether they are feral cats, hybrids or wildcats. The next step? Protect the best and neuter the rest.
When I applied for the post of Scottish Wildcat Action project officer, I was asked what area of specialism I’d like to take on within the project team. As both a former veterinary nurse and wildlife ranger, the choice for me was obvious: Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate and Return (TNVR). TNVR is not only a practical way to help protect our remaining native wildcats, but also has real benefits for the feral cats that are trapped and taken to the vet. It is wildlife conservation and animal welfare going hand-in-hand. I am a cat owner myself and I am really passionate about saving native wildlife, so I knew I wanted to bring my special set of skills to this challenging work.
I’ve had some experience with this sort of thing; working in vet clinics and rescue shelters and as a volunteer myself on other TNVR projects in the Mediterranean and South Africa. This has certainly helped as I have seen some of the challenges of working with feral cats first hand. It’s not easy by any means but it is so worthwhile.
Lots of people ask why we are doing TNVR with feral cats rather than culling them. The truth is, if done well, it can be very effective as a long term population control. A small, stable, healthier population of neutered and vaccinated feral cats is a low risk to wildcats and helps prevent new ferals moving in. But it’s only effective if you TNVR the majority of ferals in an area. That’s a tall order and a real challenge, especially in some of the more remote areas. Where to start?
I began with months of painstaking work researching TNVR projects worldwide and learning from different approaches and organisations. I consulted experts in feline behaviour and welfare, veterinary disease specialists and folks with a lifetime of experience trapping in the field. All this was to ensure our programme exceeds best practice and meets the very highest welfare standards.
Then we started talking to local vets. Getting their help to treat the feral cats we catch is the core of TNVR. We had to discuss everything from what days and times they can treat cats for us (so we know when to trap), to local cat disease hotspots, and distribution of donated vaccines and disease testing kits. All the staff in a vet practice will be involved in some way so it’s vital to get everyone on board and get their help spreading the word about wildcats and TNVR.
Then came researching and ordering all the equipment for TNVR - safe humane cat cage traps and carry cages, plus all the little things that make a big difference to a feral cat during TNVR like warm blankets and towels to help minimise cat stress during transport, drinkers and food for recovery. Everything during our TNVR process is designed to minimise handling of feral cats for the welfare of the cats and our team, though they will get thick gloves too!
Next we did lots of training for the rest of our team and the wonderful community of volunteers who’ve come forward to help. We’ve given everyone training in how to operate traps, how to recognise and minimise cat stress, and how to deal with special situations like cats with kittens or colonies of feral cats, and so much more – the manual I wrote runs to over 40 pages!
Then we have to find out where feral cats are: the big winter survey helped enormously, as have tip offs from local residents. If you’ve seen a feral cat, please let us know.
Then we’ve had to get local landowners to give their permission for trapping. Most are very willing once they know how much TNVR for ferals can help Scottish wildcats.
Before we can start TNVR on any given site there is even more to do: researching the individual cats to make sure we avoid trapping heavily pregnant or lactating females, or accidentally trapping wildcats; getting our timing right to avoid peak breeding season; avoiding any by-catch of other animals. Often we are using camera traps for this stage but again, local knowledge is a real help too.
A big part of this is also letting local pet owners know TNVR is going on with lots of door knocking, leafleting, postering and using social media to let people know the dates we will be active in their area. We also provide advice on how people can ensure their pets don’t accidentally get caught during TNVR: collars, microchips, keeping a cat in, or providing a pet photo to us are all good ways to avoid this. These conversations are invaluable as they often lead to fresh tip offs about feral cats and a chance to spread the word about responsible pet ownership too.
So with all that preparation done, it’s time to get started with TNVR. It’s amazing to see all this finally coming together and translating into practical action on the ground. I am targeting those areas where our winter survey found the best wildcats first, aiming to TNVR all ferals in these areas and surrounding zones to create a ‘safe buffer’ around our remaining wildcats.
I will be trapping feral cats through late summer, autumn and winter and will be very busy over the next few months. The hours will be long and antisocial as each trap will be checked every 12hrs. I am sure you’ll agree with me that it will be well worth it.
For more information about the project, visit www.scottishwildcataction.org or on facebook and twitter @SaveOurWildcats.
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.