I often get asked how we get our photographs of cats, which are a vital tool for identifying wildcats and ferals and targeting our conservation efforts. The answer is: a combination of technology and good old fashioned ‘cat sense’.
Photo: An ideal camera location for cats - a crossing point from woodland shelter into grassland hunting habitat. The gate acts as a bottleneck.
Camera traps or trail cameras have revolutionised study of shy nocturnal species in recent years, as they enable us to get images of animals round the clock, in often remote areas, without disturbing the animal. They are also getting cheaper, better quality and easier to use every year and are now within reach for most wildlife enthusiasts - why not try clubbing together to buy one to share amongst family or neighbours?
Photo: An ideal camera location, along a fenceline where deer and other animals have made a path on the woodland edge.
However trail cameras are not magic- they will only give you good results if you know where to put them and understand your target animals behaviour and your locality. There is no substitute for good old fashioned field-craft skills, but luckily these can be learnt.
Photo: Camera an ideal distance from the bait and angled to look along a sheltered woodland path.
Remember you will need landowner permission to site a camera trap and a special license to put one on or very near a wildcat den site.
So here are my top ten tips for catching wildlife (especially cats) on camera traps:
- Know your species - what types of habitat it likes, where it’s likely to sleep, hunt and move. Try to think like a cat to get the best results.
- Location, location, location - Find a good bottleneck or crossing point between areas of cover such as woodlands, and hunting areas such as rough grasslands, clearfell or meadows. Cats like to use paths, deer trails and linear features to move along.
- Tracking - Look around for signs of scat, tracks, hair on fences, scratch marks etc
- Consider timing - cats are easiest to see in autumn and winter when vegetation is low and they are hungry but you can get good results year round.
- Height of camera - Place your camera at cat head height/ shoulder height, and aim to get a clear view of the whole cat, including head and feet.
- Angle - Place the camera at an angle (e.g. diagonal) facing along any path or fence to get the cat in frame for as long as possible- not at right angles to the path.
- Focus - Most cameras have a ‘sweet spot’ where the focus is clearest about 3-5m away. Experiment with your camera at home by holding up a sign. Aim to get the cat to spend time in this ‘zone’ when choosing where to put it- for example so the middle of the path or bait is 3-5 m from camera.
- Avoid busy paths - Place your camera away from footpaths and tracks where walkers, cyclists and their dogs will trigger your camera and possibly put off cats visiting. Disguise if needed.
- Best bait - Maximise your chances of attracting a cat to a camera, use food bait, but make sure it is safe to do so, and not for longer than a few weeks. Natural food is best such as rabbit, pheasant or fish, best hung up from above on string.
- Other lures - Scent lures can attract cats too: scents such as: catnip, valerian tincture, fish oil etc. This can be spread around on the ground or on a nearby tree in the camera view. Sounds lures however, should not be used as they can distress wildlife.
Photo: The ideal end result. A clear view of the cat at close range with lots of detail visible for identifying it's markings.
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.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or visit our website at www.scottishwildcataction.org