Keri is responsible for Northern Strathspey and Morvern. She has extensive experience of working as an ecological consultant and has worked for Cat’s Protection. She is based at The National Trust for Scotland office.
Wildcats are extremely difficult to find, and not just because there aren’t many left.
Trail cameras have revolutionised our ability to find and monitor elusive cat species, but they still have a relatively very low ‘detection probability’.
Volunteers who have participated in our winter surveys will know that we bait the cameras, usually with game bird. The bait works on two different levels: firstly, to draw the cat in from the surrounding area, and secondly, to keep the cat in front of the camera to take photos from all angles for accurate pelage scoring and individual identification.
It is not enough to get one nice video of a cat walking by: to pelage score a wildcat, we need clear images of both sides of the animal, the tail, and the dorsal surface (i.e. its back) including the back of the head and shoulders.
Baiting the cameras can certainly help to locate wildcats, but not always. Cats are often uninterested in bait, particularly when other prey is available (this is one of the reasons we survey over winter, when alternative prey is scarce). It is also non-specific, and is commonly taken by the far more numerous badgers or pine martens long before cats appear on the scene. So we are always looking for other ways to lure wildcats into the camera stations.
We also know that Scottish wildcats go crazy for valerian root, as Skeletor from Morvern demonstrates in this video
Scottish wildcat researchers before us (including our PM Roo Campbell) have tested a variety of more cat-specific lures in the field, including catnip, valerian tincture, Hawbacker’s Wildcat lure (a smell that really stays with you), beaver castoreum and even Chanel Number 5, all with limited success. The first surveys conducted by SWA in 2015/16 used salmon oil, which had proved effective in attracting wildcats on Morvern peninsula but seemingly had little effect on cats in the other five priority areas (perhaps because the Morvern cats are coastal and eat fish?! We can only speculate). The lack of response to valerian tincture was particularly surprising, given that valerian has been used successfully as a wildcat attractant by researchers in mainland Europe for many years.
Valerian root is the dried root of the valerian plant (Valerian officinalis), native to Europe and Asia. It has long been used to treat insomnia in humans, but is also widely known for its cat-attractant properties, provoking similar behavioural responses in domestic cats as catnip, which comes from the flowers and leaves of a different plant(Nepeta cataria). The active compound in catnip is nepetalactone, whereas in valerian the main compound is actinidine. There are several other plants known to produce similar effects, and for the plants these volatile compounds are thought to play a role in repelling insect pests. Not all cats respond to catnip (or valerian), but responses include sucking, licking, rubbing, raking, and rolling about in a ‘euphoric’ state.
Wildcat researchers in mainland Europe had much success using rough wooden stakes with valerian oil or dried valerian root, rather than the tincture tried on Scottish surveys. We sourced some pure dried valerian root to trial on Morvern peninsula during the 2016-17 survey. It is very important to make sure it is pure and not mixed in with any other ingredients that could be toxic to cats, including any other herbs for human consumption. It smells very strongly – most people hate the smell (apparently it smells of old socks), but I actually quite like it! I have a terrible sense of smell, and probably stank to high heaven for most of the survey season. I did get into trouble for stinking out a few of the SNH pool cars when making valerian pouches in the boot.
We tied the dried valerian into little pouches made from natural substances in case the cats should try to eat them (we used jute/hessian for this), and then tied them to wooden posts at all 142 camera trap stations in the Morvern survey. The results were excellent – all three visiting wildcats (and most of the domestic ferals/hybrids) were completely obsessed with the valerian root! They would rub and scratch against the pouch until the valerian fell out and then roll about on the ground for minutes at a time, all with very happy expressions. The valerian seemed to have several important effects: although it did not seem to initially attract the cats from long distances, once they found it, it did keep them at the camera for longer. It also seemed to turn that camera site into a territorial marker, because the cats would often spray on the valerian, so they would then return to the site more frequently and it would attract new cats to the location.
Here we see a very nice hybrid wildcat going wild for valerian root in Morvern
We have since rolled out the valerian root to use during the winter surveys in all 5 Priority Areas, and although I don’t yet know how well it performed overall, it was certainly successful in Strathspey. We have also used it for trapping, both to get the cats into traps when food bait is unsuccessful, and to keep the cats calm during trapping and transport to the vets.
We are now hoping to use valerian directly to obtain more genetic samples in the field, either through hair samples (from rubbing against posts) or potentially from swabbing the valerian pouches that they have been sucking (this has already been trialled successfully by one of our Strathbogie volunteers, Phillip Bacon).
The only way to end this very long blog is with some of the videos that have given me such pleasure over the past year. Valerian has provided us with some entertaining and heart-warming videos of the cats we have come to know over the past few years. Enjoy!
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