There have been a few articles in the press and social media recently which included some comments about the work of Scottish Wildcat Action in relation to forestry activity at Clashindarroch in Aberdeenshire. Unfortunately, some of the language used was very emotive and it appears that, in a few cases, this has taken precedent over factual accuracy. I’d like to correct some of this misinformation here.
Before I go into the detail however, it is important to highlight that we, as a multi-partnership project, have been tasked with conserving the wildcat. That is at the very forefront of everything we do, with the help of our invaluable and wonderful network of volunteers, recorders, scientists, land managers, public body and NGO partners and other supporters.
Felling and wildcats in Clashindarroch
At the core of some of the recent statements made by an interest group is the assertion that a commercial forest, if left untouched, would improve the quality of the habitat for wildcats. Unfortunately, however well-intentioned that assertion might be, it is wrong.
Research by Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA) staff and partners and work by our European counterparts show that wildcats prefer habitat mosaics of open ground, often rich in prey such as voles, and closed cover. It is really important to emphasise wildcats are not exclusive forest creatures. Many hundreds or thousands of years ago many wildcats may have live almost entirely in forest, but those ancient forests (most of which were lost a thousand years ago) were very different to most of today’s commercial plantation forests.
As conifer plantations mature and the canopy closes, the habitat becomes much less suitable for hunting wildcats, though they will make use of these areas for travel and denning. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, felling patches of conifer plantation creates habitat for wildcat. We see this in the GPS data we have on tracked wildcats, where a significant amount of their time is spent in and around the edges of felled areas.
When the timber crop is removed, grasses start growing and this provides ideal habitat for voles – an important prey item for wildcats. Indeed we have detected previously a denning wildcat with kittens right in the middle of a felled area in Strathbogie. We’re not saying that felling a whole forest is good for wildcats, because obviously it would not be, but it is the pattern of felled and forested ground in combination with the surrounding open grassland habitats which is important to them. In other words, the resulting complex mosaic of habitat patches and edges provides places they can catch food, breed and rest across the year and over different years.
Clashindarroch is managed by Forest Enterprise Scotland (FES) one of SWA’s partners. It has several wildcats and, it should be said, obviously hybridised cats, many of which we neutered last winter. It is an area that has been under forestry management for long enough that a diverse mosaic of forest stands have developed (recently felled, restocked with seedlings, young plantation, mature plantation), along with the presence of patchy populations of rabbit in the surrounding farmland.
In any one year, a tiny fraction of these (actually around 1.5% of the total forest area) made up of relatively small patches (in relation to the home range of the wildcats living there) are thinned or felled. As mentioned above, these felled patches will then develop into new habitat that wildcats will use.
As we have said elsewhere, FES has been working very closely with us whenever forest operations have been scheduled. We share information with them on the location of wildcats based on the intensive camera surveys we have conducted over the past three winters and data from two wildcats we put GPS collars on recently. Prior to a specific forestry operation, we assist FES with walkover surveys to identify potential den sites, and we deploy camera traps around the area to find out if cats are present.
As Forest Commission Scotland has said in this blog, this has led to forest operations and other activities being changed or cancelled on several occasions and this collaborative process will continue. Other activities we are trialling include artificial den creation, mounding brash after felling in a way that creates potential den sites, and leaving wind-thrown trees as these are often used by wildcats (yes, I know, how can something so untidy be so useful?!).
Throughout this, we will be collecting what evidence we can on how these habitat improvement or mitigation measures affect wildcat use of the habitat. While we believe that current felling areas in Clashindarroch are small enough relative to the wildcats’ individual home ranges that individual animals will simply shift activity within their current home range, as they must have done ever since the forest was planted. We will be using cameras and GPS technology to verify this behaviour pattern.
To some it may seem strange for us to focus on an area dominated by a working forest, but of course we’re there because the wildcats have been, and are, using it. We’ve known this for a number of years which is why we chose it as part of one of our Priority Areas for action. So what are we actually trying to achieve in our work in the Clashindarroch and elsewhere? By working closely with foresters, we are building an evidence base for how commercial forestry can be managed in a way that benefits wildcats more widely.
Clashindarroch forest itself encompasses about 55km2 which in itself is not enough habitat for a viable population of wildcat: The minimum home range of a female is thought to be around 2km2, but the average is closer to 6km2 meaning maybe nine female wildcats could reside there (far from a viable minimum of 20 females, which is why our Strathbogie priority area is bigger than the Clashindarroch forest). By showing ways that commercial forest can be managed to benefit wildcats, we can potentially unlock much larger areas of habitat for wildcats in existing and new commercial plantations across northern Scotland – so the potential value of the whole forest estate for wildcats is enormous, and the project partnership wants to work out the best ways of benefitting wildcats still further.
If you want to read a bit more about the work we do in Clashindarroch directly from project and forestry staff on the ground, read the blogs available here and here.
Our commitment and expertise
In amongst the statements made about our work recently, there have been some that have sought to discredit our expertise and commitment to wildcat conservation, so I’m going to bang our drum for a moment: We’ve just finished an extremely intensive winter field season, with the invaluable help of our army of committed volunteers, where we simultaneously surveyed, conducted trap neuter vaccinate and return of feral and hybrid cats, and trapped wildcats for screening and GPS collaring Additionally we are working to develop policy and communications initiatives that will benefit wildcats more widely.
Throughout all this our commitment to wildcat conservation is what drives us and keeps us going. Indeed, we are the only project currently conducting this range of important conservation measures for wildcats. The combined expertise available in the Scottish Wildcat Action partnership is also without peer. Between SWA project staff and partners (including those at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, the Edinburgh University Dick Vet School, the National Museum of Scotland and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and many others), we are the only group that has direct experience of trapping wildcats, studying their behaviour, analysing their genetics and researching their morphology.
We welcome questions on our work because we operate in an open manner and we can learn from positive, constructive feedback. We share what we learn and open our work to scientific scrutiny. So when a wildcat story appears in the media, it’s always worth not taking assertions and statements at face value, but to look at the published evidence, detail and reasoning behind the story.
Finally, there have been suggestions that we are removing wildcats from Clashindarroch. So just to be clear, we can categorically state we have not removed any wildcats from there. As with all wildcats we have trapped in our priority areas, the wildcats trapped last winter were collared, sampled for genetic and disease screening and released immediately.
Lozano, J., et al., 2003. Importance of scrub–pastureland mosaics for wild-living cats occurrence in a Mediterranean area: implications for the conservation of the wildcat (Felis silvestris). Biodiversity and Conservation 12 (5), 921-935.
Ballesteros-Duperón, E., et al.. (2005) Preliminary results on habitat preferences of a wildcat (Felis silvestris Schreber, 1777) population in an area of south of Spain: influence of rabbit distribution and abundance; Potočnik, H., et al. 2005. Wildcat habitat utilization in the region of Dinaric mountains (Slovenia); Thiel, C. 2005. Spacing patterns and habitat use of wildcats in the Eifel. All in: Biology and Conservation of the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris). Symposium abstracts. Ed: M. Herrmann. Vosges du Nord – Pfälzerwald, Germany, Jan 21st – 23rd.
Klar, N., Fernandez, N., Kramerschadt, S., Herrmann, M., Trinzen, M., Buttner, I., Niemitz, C., 2008. Habitat selection models for European wildcat conservation. Biological Conservation 141 (1), 308-319.