Project Officer for Strathbogie, Emma Rawling, shares her opinion on why Strathbogie and particularly Clashindarroch forest is so good for wildcats and what is being done to ensure it stays that way
It is no secret that Clashindarroch forest in Aberdeenshire holds some of the best wildcats found in recent years and represents a vital front in the battle to save this endangered mammal.
When the Scottish Wildcat Action partnership project was launched (2015), many people were sceptical that we would find wildcats as far east as Aberdeenshire, but historical records and local people told us it was still a promising area.
Crucial to its suitability for wildcats is Strathbogie’s mixture of large forested areas mixed with fertile farmland – the ideal habitat combination for wildcats. The largest of the forested areas is the mighty Clashindarroch- a huge block of nearly 6000 hectares of working plantation forest, managed by Forest Enterprise Scotland.
From 2015, my team of more than 40 volunteers and I, began our quest to find and protect wildcats here, with extensive winter camera surveys each winter, involving thousands hours and innumerable miles walked staffing more than 60 cameras in this forest each year.
Over the last three years we have identified more than a dozen wildcats living in this area, but worryingly at least as many hybrids and feral cats sharing their habitats or living very nearby. This is typical of the problems wildcats are facing – the hybridisation and disease risk from these neighbours is very real.
So from spring 2016, Emma and her team have begun a programme of practical action to protect the wildcats in the Clash.
Four hybrid and feral cats living in this forest have so far been trapped, neutered, health tested, vaccinated and returned. We have also targeted surrounding farms on the fringes of this forest, and have neutered a further 54 farm and feral cats within three miles of the forest boundary.
Every home and farm in the forest area has also been leafleted and offered free neutering and vaccination vouchers for pet cats. All the local residents our team have spoken to have been excited to know wildcats are holding on in their area, and anxious to help protect them - and this kind of local community support will be vital for their survival.
So why is Clashindarroch so special? Well, it is largely due to the management of the forest over nearly 100 years, which has created the ideal conditions for wildcats. It is a busy working forest with timber production, a wind farm, the famous Nordic ski trails, the many miles of roads and recreational trails and working farms in the glens. This might sounds worrying, but we know that our local wildcats are happily using almost all the areas that people use, just at night when they are quiet - a clever form of ‘timesharing’.
Forest management has helped create ideal habitats for cats. The FCS (Forestry Commission Scotland) policy of leaving wide grasslands along areas like rivers and burns and allowing native tree regeneration in large conservation priority blocks has created ideal hunting habitats for wildcats.
Interestingly - areas of cleared forest which are typically left fallow for a few years before new trees are planted are also used by wildcats for hunting.
The mature trees are ideal shelter areas and the practice of leaving large piles of scrap wood around provides den sites.
In all, the rotation of on-going timber production, with a mixture of different types and ages of trees always preserved, ensures wildcats have the mixed habitats they need.
What else is being done to help wildcats here? There are statutory precautions to ensure no wildcats or their dens are adversely affected by felling, thinning or planting of trees, so FES rangers, in collaboration with SWA staff, have been proactively surveying all sites where work is planned before it starts. Where wildcat hotspots or potential dens sites are identified, these are not disturbed.
Scottish Wildcat Action has also shared all sightings information we have collected over the last three years, so foresters can plan ahead to avoid sensitive sites for wildcats. We have also trained all FES staff who work in this forest to recognise wildcats and to be aware of their den sites and have given this information to all contractors, log truck drivers etc who work in the forest - who have kindly been sending in their cat sightings too which is a big help in our work.
We are also trying some innovative and proactive things to help wildcats in Clashindarroch. Some new ‘artificial’ denning site opportunities have been created in Clashindarroch and more are planned for 2018. This is one of the sites that we are working with an Oxford University researcher to GPS collar a small number of wildcats to better understand their movements and needs too - exciting cutting edge research.
My volunteers and I are, right now, out in this forest tracking down more feral and hybrid cats to be TNVR’d (Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate and Return) this winter and will continue to look for wildcats to protect too. Expect Clashindarroch to feature widely in the future in all our plans to save Scottish Wildcats.
I would like to thank our partners at the local Forest Enterprise team for all their generous assistance and kind permission to undertake this work and their constant co-operation in terms of protecting wildcats.