Latest News - Wildlife Conservation Research Unit's Dr Kerry Kilshaw on her work to plug knowledge gaps about the Scottish wildcat

Wildlife Conservation Research Unit's Dr Kerry Kilshaw on her work to plug knowledge gaps about the Scottish wildcat


As a partner in the Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA), the role of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), part of Oxford University’s Zoology Department, is to carry out scientific research to help address some of the missing gaps in our existing knowledge on the Scottish wildcat and provide rigorously collected data to help guide some of the management actions.

The Scottish wildcat faces many challenges including a lack of knowledge on its basic ecology and behaviour.  If we know things such as; what type of habitat a wildcat uses, where and what it hunts, how big its home range size is, what size the local population is, what threats are they exposed to locally as well as information on litter sizes, lifespan and how far young adults will go in search of new territories then we can use this information to help guide conservation management in different areas.

However, because of the difficulties in identifying wildcats in the field due to hybridization with domestic feral cats and hybrids, getting this type of information has been difficult until fairly recently.  Recent advances in both technology and improved identification methods have paved the way for new research to be carried out to try and answer some of these basic conservation questions.

For example, although camera traps have been used to photograph wildlife since the early 1920’s, it is only in the last decade that they have become widely used for studying wildlife, in particular carnivores. Indeed, when I first worked with camera traps in 2007 in the jungles of Belize, digital camera traps were prohibitively expensive and we used 35mm film camera traps which greatly restricted the number and quality of photos we could take!

By 2010, when I carried out the first pilot study to see if camera traps would work on the Scottish wildcat, digital camera traps were much more affordable and thanks to the pelage assessment we could identify individual cats which also allowed us to estimate local population densities. As a result, since 2010, camera trapping has become a valuable and widespread tool in monitoring wildcat populations across Scotland.

In January 2018, WildCRU will start a new project in collaboration with Forestry Commission Scotland and the SWA field team putting GPS radio tracking collars on some of the Scottish wildcats in the SWA Priority Areas.  The use of VHF radio tracking to collect data on the Scottish wildcat is not new, pioneers in this work in the 1990’s included Dr. Mike Daniels work in Glen Tanar and Dr. Ro Scott’s work in Ardnamurchan and of course Dr. Corbett’s study in the 1970’s. These studies provided information on pretty much everything we now know about the Scottish wildcat’s behaviour in the wild.

However, since these studies have been carried out, GPS radio tracking collars have been developed and like the difference between 35mm film camera traps and digital ones, the difference in the amount of information GPS collars can collect is phenomenal!  The use of GPS technology allows the collection of detailed information on habitat use and spatial ecology of individual wildcats, offering a unique insight into how they use the landscape daily and seasonally which is not possible to obtain using any other method.

Dr Roo Campbell first trialled GPS collars on wild-living cats in Scotland a couple of years ago as part of a WildCRU-RZSS project with funding support from the Peoples Trust for Endangered Species. However, the collars were slightly limited by battery life, a huge amount of data was produced in a very short time and showed us just how important getting this type of information could be. In particular, he was able to find den sites, providing clear evidence of the importance of clearfell sites as denning sites (perhaps because there are fewer predators on open clearfell) as well as finding that as the kittens grew, the mother moved them to another den in windthrow, possibly so they could learn how to hunt prey or to reduce the chances of them getting attacked by birds of prey now they were exploring outside their den more.  

We are going to be using GPS collars designed by e-obs which have been successfully used on the European wildcat in Germany and on feral cats in Europe. Some of the unique features of these collars are that the batteries will last for 6+ months, giving us a new insight into seasonal behaviour and compared to other GPS collars, they are extremely light weight, ensuring they will be easily carried by healthy, adult wildcats.

The aim of this project is two-fold, to collect information to increase our existing knowledge of the wildcat, in particular to examine the seasonal behaviour of the wildcat and to use the data collected to assist with conservation actions within the priority areas. For example, we may find that male wildcats are moving outside of the priority areas to visit female farm cats which would clearly benefit from being neutered! We might also find that some individuals are regularly using the same area to cross very busy roads (such as the A9) and putting their lives at risk. Another important use of the GPS collars is to try and identify den sites to monitor and protect them from harmful activities.

Den sites of the Scottish wildcat are explicitly protected under British and European Law but den sites are extremely difficult to find without radio collars on. Identification of den sites inside (or outside) the Priority Areas is key to ensure they are protected from land management activities, and other potential threats. And finally, are the Priority Areas large enough?

Camera trapping can provide huge amounts of information and if placed correctly, can also allow estimates of home range size to be calculated which can then be used to assess what size area they need to live in. However, even the best camera trap layout will never be as accurate as home range size estimates from GPS radio tracking collars. Data on home range size and ranging behaviour may show that the Priority Areas need to be increased in size of even adjusted slightly if wildcats are shown to be regularly using habitat outside the Priority Areas.

There are many more examples I could use to demonstrate how useful and important this data will be, however, the initial success of the project depends entirely on the ability of the team to find wildcats this winter, so fingers crossed!

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Image for Dr Kerry Kilshaw

Kerry is attached to the WildCRU Unit of Zoology at the University of Oxford. Her background and experience can be found here 

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