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Looking for Scottish wildcats

1/250th of a second. That’s roughly how long it takes a camera shutter to trip. And it could be argued therefore, that’s how long it takes to get a decent snap of a Scottish wildcat. If only.

Possible wildcat - Peter Cairns

My journey to capture this elusive creature on camera started back in 2014. Now, 18 months on, I still have just a handful of publishable images and the story of Scotland’s most endangered mammal remains largely untold. That said, thanks to the information gleaned from last winter’s fieldcam survey, the net is closing and I now have camera traps set up on three ‘reliable’ sites. There’s a huge leap however, from reliable site to finished image.

Wildcats are unpredictable: not all will tolerate the sight, sound and smell of a camera trap on their patch. And even those that do, have a habit of revealing their ‘wrong’ side – a back end, a tail, a head chopped off. Technology is also unpredictable. Each camera trap with its associated sensors is powered by over 20 batteries – it only takes one to fail and it’s game over. And then there are ‘other factors.’


I’ve had lots of ‘other factors’ appear in front of the camera, some attracted by the scent of oily fish used for bait - like big greedy Labradors, and others bizarrely enticed by the prospect of a micro-second of fame, like the young man who took over 100 images of himself dancing and prancing in the forest: whatever turns you on.

But my main enemy, the subject that has expended more megapixels than any other, is the humble wood mouse. The little beauty below ran off over 5gb of memory (242 images to be precise) in one night running backwards and forwards breaking the beam. I believe that every living organism has as much right to life as any other. Except wood mice.

Wood mouse

Dogs, posers and my disdain for wood mice aside, the quest goes on. Wildcats need to be seen to be appreciated, if not in real life then via visual media. We need to be able to tell stories about the wildcat for it to be relevant, for it to be understood, for it to be saved. That might take longer than 1/250th of a second, it may well involve more mouse pain but if we can’t bring the wildcat to life with visual stories, then its future is just a tad more bleak. The quest goes on.

All photos copyright: Peter Cairns 2016.

For more information about the project, visit or on facebook and twitter @SaveOurWildcats.

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.

Heritage Lottery Fund

This content was made possible by our Partners & Funders at Heritage Lottery Fund


Image for Peter Cairns

Based in the Scottish Highlands, Peter Cairns is a freelance photographer with fifteen years professional experience under his belt. Co-founder of Tooth & Claw, Wild Wonders of Europe and 2020VISION, Peter focuses on long-term conservation communication projects. He is a Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers and a Director of The Wild Media Foundation. He is photographing wildcats as part of SCOTLAND: The Big Picture.

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Scottish Wildcats @SaveOurWildcats