Latest News - A hair’s breadth away from the perfect sampling solution – a volunteer’s story

A hair’s breadth away from the perfect sampling solution – a volunteer’s story

One of our amazing volunteers from Strathbogie Wildcat Priority Area, Norman Davidson, likes a challenge and he’s been beavering away to find the best way of collecting DNA hair evidence from the elusive Scottish wildcat.

Patience is obviously a virtue which Norman has plenty of and he’s decided to share his progress with us all:

“I have always thought how fantastic it would be if we could get genetic material from those great looking cats in the trail camera videos collected during surveys. With that thought in mind I decided to search for an answer. How could I get wildcats to donate a small sample of around 20 hairs each for DNA testing without having to handle or trap them?

How indeed! All sorts of scenarios have been tried with limited success, such as Velcro, sticky tape, rough wooden posts with nicks in them along with so many other ideas that have crossed my mind.

One by one each option ruled itself out. Velcro (as we know it anyway) is just not capable of catching a cat’s hair well enough. Sticky tape was ineffective on wet fur (great for those little rodents in the desert mind you). Wooden posts trapped very few hairs at a time and not enough for a sample, not to mention the doubts which would arise if it was paid a visit by a second cat.

During one of my many trawls across the inter-web I noted one procedure, described by the Vincent Wildlife Trust, which they used to trap Pine Marten hairs as they visited baited tunnels in trees.

That procedure involved the use of a tensioned closed-coil spring that trapped the hair when the animal passed. It does this by knocking it off the pins, allowing the coils to contract and trap some hair. Easy peasy and with the added bonus that only one animal’s sample hair could ever be in the spring.

In April this year I ordered some springs and by May I set to work on the DIY transformation of a few bits of wood, wire, brass nails and an old plastic drain tube. Hey presto my prototype was ready! Well almost.

The Vincent Wildlife Trust system was very difficult to set up in terms of being able to retain that ‘hair trigger’ (Get it?). So I fitted the whole assembly onto the inside roof of a short, nine inch (diameter) plastic pipe and a little bait was placed at the far end.

Fitting it to pipe proved to be quite innovative, if I do say so myself. It actually worked and it managed to trap a nice hair sample. The only flaw in my cunning plan was that it was very difficult to set for a ‘light touch release’ and then of course cats being cats they opted to play with the trigger system tether!  Oh well, back to the drawing board.

Unperturbed I ventured onto the next stage conversion. This saw the introduction of a hinge and pivot on the bar, therefore just a slight outward touch or rub by an animal reversing out from the closed tunnel would flick the two piece wood centre and immediately allow the spring to close. It worked, but only once or twice.

Sensitivity of the centre trigger was difficult to set and some wily cats became wise to my game. Subsequently they would be very careful and lower their backs going in and especially coming out. As a result I had to place little barriers at the bottom to keep the body high.

The only downside to this latest idea was that hedgehogs found the little bits of bait irresistible, and as they dipped in and out they continually set the trap off, something which caused them no harm and they seemed very happy.

I now estimate that I’m around ten modifications and three months into my trials and they are still on-going with domestic cats.

The trigger system is now easier to set so that it is very close to cat’s back as it exits the tunnel. At this point I am not certain who the winner is, the cats or me, but by September I think we are about even!

The next stage is more field testing – so watch this space.” Norman Davidson SWA Strathbogie volunteer.

Another two of our volunteers, Mick and Donna, have been experimenting with another version of the tunnel and various forms of sticky tape. We love the enthusiasm and endeavour of our dedicated volunteers.

Here at Scottish Wildcat Action we hope this sort of method will help us get more hair samples of our wildcats this winter for DNA analysis - a vital tool for their future conservation.

If you have any interesting tales like Norman please feel free to share them with us at

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Norman is one of our indispensable volunteers and works in the Strathbogie area of Aberdeenshire.

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