Top 3 threats to wildcat survival

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There are three main threats to the survival of the Scottish wildcat. These are:

1) Hybridisation: hybridisation, also known as interbreeding, is when Scottish wildcats breed with domestic cats or hybrids of the two and produce fertile offspring. This is the main threat to Scottish wildcats as the offspring are a mixture both in their appearance and genetically, and eventually they will be wiped out as a distinct species by genetic introgression.

There are so few wildcats left that it is difficult for them to find other wildcats to breed with. It is estimated that there are a minimum of 813,000 feral cats in the UK (Woods et al., 2003) although welfare charity, Cats Protection, believe this to be more like 1.5 million. Ferals are domestic cats that are living wild, either because they were unwanted kittens that were abandoned, or they have dispersed from farm colonies. The impact on our native cat is huge.

Scottish Wildcat Action has identified six priority areas where we will be conducting an extensive Trap Neuter Vaccinate and Release programme. With the help of local vets, volunteers and a generous donation of vaccinations from MSD Animal Health, we hope to reduce this threat considerably over the project lifespan. However, only by encouraging local people to continue this work long into the future will the wildcat stand a chance of survival.

2) Disease: Feral domestic cats are often in poor health and they can spread parasites and disease to Scottish wildcats. As the numbers of feral cats increase unchecked, disease and parasites are easily spread. Life expectancy of wild-living cats is only 6-8 years. The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies is conducting disease research on animal carcasses, such as roadkill, and on live cats caught as part of the neutering programme. This will help improve our understanding of disease transmission and help us focus our efforts accordingly.

3) Accidental persecution: Feral domestic cats present a problem for land managers rearing game birds. Gamekeepers carry out legal predator control to reduce their numbers, but run the risk of killing or harming a wildcat by mistake. This is because they can look very similar from a distance, particularly at night. Many gamekeepers are keen to protect our native cat. The Scottish wildcat is also protected by law, so it is illegal to kill or disturb them.

Scottish Wildcat Action and land management partners are working together to make sure that there is an easy way to distinguish between a wildcat and a feral tabby cat and are providing training and wildcat-friendly equipment to support this work. We are also encouraging landowners to access funding that is available in our wildcat priority areas for trail cameras and cage traps to find out what cats are on their ground and to use cage traps in preference to lamping (shooting at night) and snaring. Hence, the gamekeeper can get a good look at the animal first to make sure it is not a wildcat before humanely dispatching the feral cat. Only by working with local people at every level can we hope to save our wildcats so this is why we encourage wildcat friendly predator control.

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