It’s 6th December 2015. An email pops into my inbox from Sally Holt of the Wildwood Trust, Herne Bay in Kent, inviting me to download some photos of three captive wildcats. As part of Scottish Wildcat Action, I am working closely with David Barclay, Cat Conservation Project Officer for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) to assess all the captive wildcats in Britain and see if any would be good candidates for joining the conservation breeding programme.
Conservation breeding for future release is an important component of the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan. By selecting the best wildcats already in zoos and wildlife parks, and pairing these with the best remaining wildcats from the wild, an insurance policy will be created. This will give conservation actions in the six wildcat priority areas a chance to take effect and also provide wildcats for future reintroductions into areas where they are currently extinct.
We have a two-pronged approach to identifying cats. Firstly I score features of the cat’s markings and coloration from a series of photographs that are taken to show the key distinguishing characters, while a blood sample is also taken and sent to the Wild Genes Lab at RZSS for a genetic assessment. By combining both pelage and genetic assessments, we have the most accurate method of identification and for understanding the degree of hybridisation.
Sally had sent me photos of two males, RJ and Staffin, and a female called Carna. Could these be wildcats? So I have the photos up on my computer screen. What am I looking for? Firstly I just like to get a feel for the look of the cat. Often just by looking at a supine feline you can immediately tell which side of the hybrid divide it falls; is it more wildcatty or more moggy?
I am looking closely at RJ’s photos, which are excellent – thank you Sally! Well, he’s definitely got a stripy wildcat tail, but let’s take a closer look. The stripes on the back of the neck are thick and wavy as they should be in a wildcat And the two shoulder stripes are also there. The dorsal stripe down the middle of the back stops at the root of the tail as it should do in a wildcat, although it is perhaps a bit thicker than usual. Both the flank and rump stripes are a bit broken up, but relatively continuous with little evidence of spotting.
Finally the tail tip shape is blunt and black as we see in typical wildcats and the tail bands meet on the underside, but the banding pattern is not quite right. I also notice that the white belly patch is a bit too prominent, but the muzzle coloration is a nice whitish buff.
For clear wildcat characters I give a score of 3, for domestic cat characters a score of 1 and intermediate characters get a score of 2. For RJ my total score is 19-20 out of a possible 21, so from its pelage or furry coat, it’s probably a wildcat, but it may have some slight domestic cat ancestry. Overall this cat would appear to be a good candidate for conservation breeding, but we need to see the genetic results to confirm whether this is so. RJ’s cage mates also score quite well; Carna 16-20 and Staffin 17-19, so they may also be good candidates for conservation breeding.
So the excitement is over for now, but the extensive work we are doing in this partnership will mean many more cats to assess, from cats intended for the conservation breeding programme to those living wild in the priority areas that we’ll protect in place. With every cat comes new information to help us create a positive future for the wildcat in Scotland.
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.