It was 7.30am when the phone rang. As a regional Wildcat Project Officer I am used to receiving all sorts of requests for help with cats and phone calls at odd times. On the line was a local farmer who had accidentally caught a live wildcat in her fox cage trap. Could I help identify it? Needless to say I dropped everything and jumped in the car and was in remote Clashindarroch Forest in Strathbogie in record time.
I am increasingly being asked to help identify possible wildcats or hybrids in person or on film, by gamekeepers, farmers, residents and lucky people who’ve caught an image on camera. This shows the value of working with the local community to raise awareness of wildcats and how it helps ensure things like a reduction in accidental persecution. I never know what I am going to find: often it’s a feral tabby or a hybrid, so I’ve learnt not to get my hopes up.
What I found this morning though was a real thrill: a beautiful cat with all the classic markings of a wildcat, sitting grumpily in a large fox cage trap.
It was immediately clear that this was a possible wildcat that should be released as legally required. We didn’t want to stress it by keeping it in the trap for any longer than absolutely necessary. With such a unique opportunity though, we wanted to take some photos of it to analyse later for pelage scoring and take a few strands of hair to test in the lab.
Then, with the farmer’s help we opened the cage and stood well back. I have never seen a cat move so fast and cover so much ground in a single jump! Within seconds it disappeared into the surrounding forest where it lives.
What a thrill to meet this cat ‘in person’ and the farmer was equally delighted to know wildcats were still holding on in her area. That’s why so much of my practical work in the coming months and years in Strathbogie will be focussed in this area, protecting wildcats by promoting responsible pet ownership and Trapping, Neutering, Vaccinating and Releasing feral cats to prevent interbreeding and disease transmission.
Afterwards, with the time to really look carefully at the images, we were able to ascribe a pelage score of 18 out of 21 for this cat so it passed the scoring threshold for a wildcat.
Looking into the tiny detail of its markings, it was also clear that I had seen this cat before. It turns out it had appeared on one of our nearby trail cameras run by a local volunteer during the winter wildcat survey.
It was the unique pattern of the dorsal line and the pattern of stripes on it’s flanks that helped us confirm it was the same cat. I have spent many hours poring over the hundreds of cat images from the survey, counting stripes to identify individuals and you can usually find something distinctive about each cat, even if it sends you a bit cross-eyed. From this I’ve been able to get a better idea of the range of this cat. It’s several square miles. So you can see every image, every sighting helps us build this picture of local wildcats and helps us protect them.
For more information about the project, visit www.scottishwildcataction.org 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.