Latest News - Interview with the Chair of Scottish Wildcat Action

Interview with the Chair of Scottish Wildcat Action

Originally published by Conjour.

  1. Since foundation in 2015, has Scottish Wildcat Action found it difficult to juggle so many partnerships between organisations, or is everyone on the same page when it comes to operations?

Scottish Wildcat Action is underpinned by a broad partnership which includes leading experts on wildcat conservation as well as a wide range of conservation organisations and Government agencies.  We see this as a strength. It provides the project with a strong cross section of interest groups and allows us to have robust discussions on both the science and practical aspects of wildcat conservation.

This is extremely valuable in tackling the conservation of a species with such challenging conservation needs.  We are extremely fortunate to have such a broad partnership. There will obviously be some differences of opinion, but what has made the partnership work is that everyone is keen to ensure the survival of the Scottish wildcat and committed to work together to achieve this.

  1. I've seen figures from 35 up to 400 for remaining wildcats - is there any clearer/more definitive numbers from recent surveys?

Wildcats are difficult to survey: they are secretive, often moving around under cover of vegetation at night and they are well camouflaged. The fact that they are also able to hybridise with the domestic cat doesn’t help us either as it’s not always obvious whether what you see is a wildcat or a hybrid (a cat with mixed wildcat and domestic cat ancestry). However, remote monitoring using motion-sensitive trail cameras has really helped us.

The most recent survey that covered the whole range of the Scottish wildcat was conducted by Dr Kerry Kilshaw and colleagues at the University of Oxford and involved intensive use of these cameras. The study estimated a total population of 115-314 individuals. This compares with an estimated 7.4 million pet cats in the UK, according to the latest PFMA Pet Population Report. 100,000 of these are thought to be feral domestic cats living in Scotland, according to welfare charity Cats Protection. These are domestic cats that are born in the wild because their ancestors were unneutered stray or abandoned cats.

Scottish Wildcat Action also recently completed the biggest wildcat survey ever conducted. This involved monitoring nearly 350 trail cameras across 620 square miles of habitat in five of our wildcat priority areas (Strathpeffer, Strathbogie, Strathavon, Northern Strathspey and the Angus Glens). We are now analysing the results to give us a population density estimate but initial findings have been both exciting and very worrying: we found 19 possible wildcats, compared with 44 hybrids and 40 domestic cats, most of which were obviously feral and living wild.

Whatever results you look at, it is clear that there are very few Scottish wildcats left in the wild but a lot of domestic cats, including feral cats and obvious hybrids. Wildcats are now so outnumbered that it is difficult for them to find other wildcats to breed with. The fact that wildcats can breed with domestic cats and produce fertile offspring is probably the single biggest challenge to the species and to us as a conservation project. We need a major behavioural shift in the way we look after wildcats, feral cats and pet cats in Scotland and this requires a robust collaborative effort that unites people at every level to save the species. Without this, it is clear the Scottish wildcat will be extinct within a few years.

  1. What is the difference between the subspecies F. s. silvestris and F. s. grampias?

The whole taxonomy of the small cats worldwide is going through a review at the moment. One view is that the Scottish wildcat is the same subspecies as the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris). Nevertheless, the Scottish wildcat has been separated from its mainland European counterparts for around 9,000 years and over that time will have locally adapted to the environmental conditions in Scotland which are wetter and cooler than elsewhere in its range.  The wildcat isn’t really a cold-loving species, and the Scottish population represent the most northerly in the world. Our view is that the Scottish wildcat is distinct enough that we should be concentrating on conserving it as a unique animal.

  1. How successful so far has the Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate and Return programme been, and what are the downsides if any?

We have only just begun the TNVR programme in wildcat priority areas and it’s still early days. Winter is the best time to conduct this work because the cats are hungrier and looking for mates, so more likely to wander and be interested in the bait we put out. We expect to get a lot of TNVR done over this coming winter and we’ll be making use of the intelligence from our survey as well as public sightings to do so.

An obvious result of TNVR compared with lethal methods is that neutered feral cats are still living in areas with wildcats and may be competing with them for space and food. On the other hand, if feral cats were removed from the area, new feral cats (which outnumber wildcats 5 to 1 in our areas and 8 to 1 outside our areas) will move in from outside, bringing with them disease and getting into fights with wildcats as they establish territories. Scratches and bites from these fights are likely a major source of disease transmission and we want to avoid that. These incomers may also be unneutered so the threat of hybridisation would continue. Conducting intensive and geographically focused TNVR, as we are doing, may therefore be more effective than lethal control in bringing down cat numbers. We will always review new evidence as we move forward. We also want the cat-owning public to help us by getting their pet cats neutered and vaccinated, particularly if they live in a wildcat priority area. That way, both feral cats and pet cats will be wildcat-friendly.

  1. What do the plans involve for conservation breeding? I.e. when and where will it begin?

There is a difference between captive breeding and conservation breeding. The first aims to breed wildcats as a refuge population and these wildcats are on show to the public for educational purposes. Many zoos and wildlife parks are engaged in captive breeding of wildcats already. The second aims to breed them for future release into the wild, which is a whole different ball game. It requires a much more managed approach to breeding to give the wildcats the best chance of survival in the wild. It means bigger enclosures, scientific monitoring and significant cost.

The last eighteen months have been very busy. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland are the lead partner in conservation breeding and they took over the management of the wildcat studbook, developed a more sophisticated genetic test that would help distinguish a wildcat from a hybrid and started testing wildcats living in zoos and wildlife parks across the country. They have identified 73 individuals that may be suitable for the conservation breeding for release programme. The next step is to assess their interrelatedness and decide how many wild-caught wildcats are needed to boost the gene pool. Semen banking is also being investigated. However, it will be a while before suitable release sites can be determined as the threats are still at large. This is why we are working in partnership with so many organisations. The task of saving this species is significant.

  1. If conservation breeding is successful, how optimistic are you on releases going to plan?

Wildcats, like all small cats, have an amazing innate ability to hunt (ask any cat owner), but of course this doesn’t mean they will be able to hunt successfully enough and find shelter if thrown out into the wild. The RZSS-led conservation breeding programme has been inspired by the very successful Iberian Lynx breeding programme in Spain and Portugal. Off-show enclosures are designed so that kittens brought into them will learn how to hunt and find shelter, with minimal human contact. The enclosures are large with plenty of natural cover, trees and rocks. The top is open to the elements and the mesh is wide enough for small prey such as mice and birds to move freely. Before we go about releasing any animals into the wild, there will also be test releases in controlled locations where we can closely monitor individuals’ behaviour post-release. Of course there will always be challenges but we have some of the world’s leading experts involved in the project so we are optimistic we can give wildcats a more positive future.

  1. There is some talk of Lynx reintroduction in Scotland. Is SWA for or against this, and what impact could it have on the wildcat?

A significant amount of evidence is required to support an application to reintroduce lynx. Scottish Wildcat Action would expect the potential impact of lynx reintroduction on Scotland’s wildcat population to be properly considered and addressed in any licence application.

  1. Anything else worth mentioning regarding SWA's work?

There are some interesting results coming in from other partners now. Forestry Commission Scotland have been planting native woodland and trialling artificial dens to encourage wildcats and the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies has carried out post mortems on 37 hybrid cats to distinguish what diseases they were carrying. This work all informs our approach moving forward. We use scientific study to inform conservation work on the ground and help us reduce the threats to wildcats.

We’ve also seen some great response from local people, particularly those living in the Highlands. We have received over 80 sightings from members of the public through our website and Mammal Tracker app of wildcats, hybrids and feral cats. We are also very lucky to have recruited around 140 volunteers to help us with monitoring cameras, Trap Neuter Vaccinate Return and awareness-raising events.


Scottish Natural Heritage

This content was made possible by our Partners & Funders at Scottish Natural Heritage


Image for Eileen Stuart

Eileen is Head of Policy and Advice at Scottish Natural Heritage, the lead partner in Scottish Wildcat Action. Her role includes giving a strategic lead on policy and advice issues including: rural development, landscape, recreation, ecosystem approaches, and habitats and species. She is the strategic lead for Wildlife Crime; Biodiversity; Wildlife Management and the Common Agricultural Policy & Scottish Rural Development Programme. She also leads SNH's input into the Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels Project and the Scottish Wildcat Action Plan.

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