Latest News - Living with wildcats – a forester’s view

Living with wildcats – a forester’s view


The Scottish wildcat is elusive, secretive and an icon of wilderness that’s hard to find. So if it is such a difficult animal to keep track of, how exactly do we protect the Highland tiger in a commercial forestry plantation?

The Scottish wildcat is the only native member of the cat family found in Britain. It has declined in numbers and range and there are now possibly as few as between 100 and 300 individuals restricted to the north and central areas of Scotland. Historically, wildcats would have been present across Moray and Aberdeenshire but their range has been greatly reduced due to persecution, disease and hybridisation (cross-breeding) with domestic cats.

So when our friends at Scottish Wildcat Action detected a number of high scoring cats in our forests in the Strathbogie priority area during surveys in 2015 and 2016, we were very excited!

But why Strathbogie? What makes this forest, referred to by some as a ‘Sitka spruce factory’, so special for wildcats?

Well, when we had a closer look, the forest is not that uniform after all; on-going management has created a number of habitats offering shelter, hunting ground and, most importantly, prey.

The everyday business of felling timber and replanting trees is inadvertently providing wildcats with optimal habitat – a mosaic of open space and forest. Brash (branches and tree tops from harvesting), pockets of windblown trees and deadwood left on felling sites was being used by wildcats for denning. And voles, important to wildcats in winter when rabbits may not be so plentiful, love restock and new native woodland sites.

Great news for the cats but what does this mean for the forester planning operations in the forest? The Scottish wildcat is a European Protected Species and as such is fully protected from deliberate or reckless disturbance - as are their dens and resting places. So what do we do?

Prior to any management operation in the forest, surveys are carried out to detect nests, setts, dens, sensitive flora etc. Measures to protect these things and any restrictions on when in the year work can be done are then written into operational site plans.

Sometimes it can be tricky to pick up signs of wildcats or their dens so we often deploy remote cameras and work with our colleagues in Scottish Wildcat Action to survey sites.  Where there is a high risk of dens being present, we try to plan operations to avoid the breeding season. In fact, we have a number of man-made dens (wooden boxes) that we are also monitoring. Our operational staff are briefed on the presence of wildcats and are given a crib sheet to help keep them right on what is allowed and what is not allowed.

We hope that by continuing to have sustainable forest and land management at the heart of what we do that we can continue to create safe places for wildcats in Strathbogie.

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Image for Philippa Murphy

Philippa has worked for Forest Enterprise Scotland for 21 years since graduating from Aberdeen University. She's held her current post as Environment Manager for Moray & Aberdeenshire Forest District for nine years. This wide role covers species and habitat management along with the conservation of our built heritage. Her day to day work is to ensure that the needs of species and habitats are considered in the planning of all aspects of forestry work.

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