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Thinking like a Scottish wildcat

Acrobatic red squirrel - Scottish Wildcat ActionThis winter I have been learning how to live like a cat. By that I don’t mean I’ve been lazing about for 23 hours a day like a pampered domestic moggie (I promise!). Instead I have been trying to look at the world from the eyes of Scotland’s only native feline, the elusive Scottish wildcat. Since December I have been volunteering full time with Scottish Wildcat Action, helping with the winter wildcat survey using camera traps. In my experience with camera trapping, to capture a shot of your target species, you have to start thinking like them.

After graduating from Glasgow with my Zoology degree, I headed out to work for a few years in South America. From the scorching savannahs of Bolivia to the towering treetops of tropical Peru, I have found camera traps an excellent tool in research. They are great for revealing unusual behaviours or elusive animals, such as the charismatic jaguar, the top predator of the Amazon rainforest. When I found myself back in Scotland for the winter, the chance to become involved with a conservation project using camera traps to find our native top predator was too good to pass up. So, I traded in my sunscreen and bug repellent for thermals and gaiters, and headed up to my new home away from home, snowy Tomintoul.

I met with Emma Rawling, the project officer for my priority area of Strathavon, and after a few days of shadowing her whilst she put out camera traps with local volunteers, I had a good idea of what to look out for and was let loose with my own set of cameras. Along with the camera traps came a car boot full of essential equipment and, unfortunately, a plastic bag full of frozen birds to be used as bait.

Emma and I used maps of the area and highlighted the most promising locations for camera traps; using aerial images to look for habitat edges that would provide a good mix of hunting and shelter for any potential wild-living cats around. Then it was up to me to use my experience and common sense to narrow down where the camera trap should live over the 60-day survey period. Most animals, including cats, will take the easiest route and follow pre-existing trails, so any clear animal trails were one of the first thing I looked out for. Other considerations included the prevailing wind direction (we didn’t want our camera under piles of snow for the whole survey), and trying to keep clear of regularly used paths to avoid accidental images ofpeople. 

Winter wildcat survey - Scottish Wildcat ActionI wish I could say that thinking like a cat had resulted with memory cards full of wildcat images, but so far no cat has strayed past my cameras, though some other local volunteers have been luckier. I’m not too downhearted though, past experience has shown me that some results are worth waiting for and as some of my cameras still have a month of action to go, I’m not ruling out the chance to see one yet. In the meantime, after a few years out of the country it has been great to reacquaint myself with the diversity of Scottish wildlife that have been considerate enough to visit my traps, such as pine marten, stoat, red deer, roe deer, brown hare and mountain hair, fox, badgers, red squirrels, rodents and forest birds. Everything but a cat!

Scottish Wildcat Action's winter wildcat survey is the biggest ever survey in Scotland with over 300 trail cameras being used over the winter to assess wildcats, feral cats and hybrids (cats with mixed wildcat and domestic cat ancestry) that live in the wild. This will help inform the Trap Neuter Vaccinate and Release (TNVR) programme that the team will be carrying out in the six wildcat priority areas of Morvern, Strathpeffer, Strathbogie, Strathavon, North Strathspey, and the Angus Glens later this year. Results from the survey are expected at the end of April with TNVR starting in late summer/early autumn.

Scottish Wildcat Action is the first national project to save the highly endangered Scottish wildcat from extinction. It is a partnership involving over 20 organisations, including, Scottish Natural Heritage, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), Cairngorms National Park Authority, Forestry Commission Scotland, National Museums Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. It is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund and Scottish Government, as well as its partners.

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After graduating from University of Glasgow with a degree in Zoology, Laura worked in Peru for the Crees Foundation. Now back in the UK, she continues to build skills for a career in conservation research by volunteering for projects such as Scottish Wildcat Action.

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