Latest News - Scottish wildcat conservation breeding programme not just a numbers game

Scottish wildcat conservation breeding programme not just a numbers game

 

As our understanding of the status of wildcats in Scotland increases the need to reinforce the population becomes more and more apparent.

The project is often asked questions about the conservation breeding programme; the level of hybridisation, number of cats and management of the programme.

With the need to ensure viable populations in the wild, reintroductions from this breeding programme will be a critical component in the conservation of the species in Scotland, and as a result these questions are incredibly important.

It is also important to mention that we manage the Scottish wildcat conservation breeding for release programme following recommendations from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that clearly highlight the value of stable captive populations in the fight against species extinction.

As a key partner to Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA), RZSS took over the management of the Scottish wildcat studbook and breeding programme in 2015, before which it was managed by staff at the Aspinall Foundation.

Although we still worked closely with the previous studbook keeper it was clear that the management of the population had challenges. Without a robust genetic test, which would highlight the level of hybridisation in the population, accurate breeding recommendations were not possible. Thankfully however, due to the work of our RZSS WildGenes lab in Edinburgh, we now have the only genetic test for screening Scottish wildcats both in captivity and in the wild. 

In 2016 this test was used to genetically screen the entire breeding population of wildcats held in captivity. This means that individuals used for future breeding will not only look like wildcats but have a high proportion of wildcat genes. Now that we have this information we can move forward with building a robust captive population.

What does this involve you may ask? It might appear that the simplest route would be to breed as many cats as you can as quickly as you can; however, the situation is a little more complex than that.

A successful breeding programme is one that ensures high standards of animal management and welfare through the creation of species management guidelines, maintains a high genetic diversity in the population, explores options for adding new genes over time, communicates well with collections holding the species, maintains a detailed database of the population (studbook), adds new holders to increase space and capacity and produces annual breeding recommendations for controlled breeding of the population. All of which is currently being delivered or developed by RZSS.

With this in mind, it is easier to understand that that in some years the number of births will be high and in some years the number of births will be low. This may also help people to understand why, as mentioned previously, it is not all about breeding as many cats as possible as quickly as possible. As a basic example, if there were ten enclosures with a pair of wildcats in each and all bred two kittens, this would result in 20 offspring, meaning that, as a minimum, there would need to be ten more empty enclosures somewhere to house them. Such a high growth rate would of course be unsustainable and would likely have a more negative impact than positive.

Such breeding could also lower the genetic diversity of the population instead of increase it. If however, in this example, only two or three pairs (with the rarest genetic representation) were to breed then the number of offspring produced would be manageable within the population AND there would still be an increase in genetic diversity.

This is of course a very simplistic example, but the principle behind it is significant. When we consider the number of factors that can impact on the structure and growth of a population, it is easy to see that the management of such populations has to be controlled, well managed and not simply a race to see who can breed the most. Even with well managed breeding there can still be situations where there is a small number of surplus of cats. In these cases individual collections continue to house the cats until new breeding pairs are needed. 

It is also important to bear in mind that, although we are working towards a reintroduction programme for wildcats in Scotland, this too has to be carefully planned and managed. I have been asked previously, with regards to captive breeding, why we don’t simply release the cats if we breed too many, or that the aim every year should be to breed as many as possible to release them.

The release of wildcats back into Scotland is and always will be our ultimate aim; however, there is a lot of important work to be done before this can happen if we want to have the best chance of success. Along with the extensive fieldwork carried out by the SWA field teams and project partners, we are developing plans to carry out potential release site assessments to ensure that any area where cats are released in the future has the necessary features and resources needed for wildcats, and where the threats have been removed or controlled. If we were to simply release cats into the wild without following the necessary recommendations from the IUCN and Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations, then the chances of success would be incredibly slim.

Planning and management of captive breeding programmes, especially when reintroduction is possible, is never a straight forward job and is rarely achieved by one individual or one organisation alone. Aside from the support and collaboration of both our SWA partners and Scottish wildcat captive holders, we also have a number of important relationships with international conservation organisations or projects that are allowing us to increase our capacity with both ex-situ and in-situ conservation work. There will continue to be challenges along the way, but if we are to succeed with reintroductions and in return help to save Scottish wildcats, these will be challenges that we will happily accept.  

David Barclay, RZSS Cat Conservation Project Officer, Scottish Wildcat Studbook & Breeding Programme Coordinator

For more information on our genetic test for Scottish wildcats, visit http://www.snh.gov.uk/docs/A1636094.pdf

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Image for David Barclay

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. 

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