Ana Luisa is a cat enthusiast who has a Biology masters from Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade in Lisbon, Portugal. She is currently visiting Scotland for the first time to work as a volunteer for Scottish Wildcat Action in our Strathbogie Wildcat Priority Area.
Latest News - Wildcat bootcamp - the latest blog from our Portuguese volunteer Ana-Luisa Barros
Before coming to help in the winter survey I had an intensive training week in December with the other volunteers. Well, it was very interesting, basically a lot of cat talk!
I got to know a bit more about the biology and ecology of this Scottish wildcat, but also about the project and its goals. This was a good week to learn all about wildcats and get familiar with some of the devices we are now using.
So, I've done some camera-trapping in the past, mostly for mesocarnivore communities in Portugal, but only for a short period as part of the course. But when you are targeting a specific species there are some considerations you need to take into account.
Where do you place the camera? Apparently the wildcat is quite similar to our Iberian lynx. It likes mosaic landscapes! Shrubs and denser forests for cover, and open fields for hunting (rabbits, mice, voles...).
So this is what you look for in the area, but then you need to choose a micro-site to set it up, and have a high probability of snapping an awesome cat pic! Another thing I learned is that cats like to follow linear features, a path or a stone wall.
Also places where you have a bottleneck (where paths meet for example) is perfect because you can cover a lot of options from where the cat may come. And avoid boggy places! Cats don't like wet feet (very fancy!), but on the other hand... who does?
And after you find the perfect spot you just need to place your camera in the right position. The goal is to have as many pictures of the same cat as you can, to identify individuals. We use bait and scent to attract the wildcat and these need to be positioned so you get full body pictures, of him stretching to get the bait and all different sides. Why is this important?
That's another thing I learned. How do you identify a wildcat? How do you tell it apart from a hybrid? As I'm quickly realising it isn't easy! There's a scoring system for the different features that make a cat a wildcat, and that's why you need so many pictures of him in different positions, so you're able to see all of those features.
During this training week we spent several hours looking at awesome cat pics, in other words we were training our wildcat detecting radar. But when in doubt, just ask your Project Officer!
The truth is sometimes is hard to score all features, because the cat may not be very photogenic and won't cooperate in showing everything you need. But well, that's why you keep trying and leave the camera for at least 60 days. By the end, if you are lucky, you will have a lot of cat pictures, and also lots of other wonderful wildlife!
Obviously another important part of the project is TNVR (Trap Neuter Vaccinate Return). I have four cats, so I'm pretty used to carrying them to the vet and handling them. But those are my sweet, calm domestic cats. Not feral, anxious, scared cats that just want to jump out of the trap and run for the hills.
This was a really important part of the training week, because it is something I didn't know much about. How to place the traps? How to ensure they are safe and comfortable so the cat doesn't freeze overnight? What to do when you catch a cat?
Every step of the trapping is planned carefully so you don't catch someone's pet, and also to be sure the cat you're targeting is indeed feral and has to be neutered. Then, when you're sure you just have to set the trap and wait. You regularly check the trap and once you have it, is straight to the vet so it can be neutered, vaccinated and ready to be returned as quickly as possible. Everything is planned so you cause minimal stress and the cat is healthy and returned to the same spot.
By now I have done a few releases and I can assure you they go really fast! It's quite satisfying to watch them run back to where they feel safe, knowing he'll probably have a healthier life now and that it doesn't pose a threat for the remaining wildcats in the area.
And with all this knowledge I returned to Portugal to prepare for the winter survey! Buy clothes, pack bags, leave everything in order to return in January. But I had one last task! I was kindly given one camera-trap to test and get familiar with. Well, I would have liked to catch an Iberian lynx, or maybe just a common Genet... or even an European wildcat! But instead, I set up the camera in the house, in the best hunting ground (the kitchen) and in the best micro-site: pointing to the food bowls! It may seem a bit of a wasted opportunity, but near where I live there aren't a lot of open areas where you can see wildlife.
So I thought at least this way I could test the camera and see how far I need to place it to get good cat pictures. And my cats where the perfect models! So here are some of the results:
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