Highland Wildlife Blog

January 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

2014, Year of the Wildcat?

by Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections, RZSS Highland Wildlife Park

On the 24th of September last year, the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) coordinated Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan was formally launched.  There are a range of conservation and land management groups involved in implementing the plan, including the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, of which the Highland Wildlife Park is a part.  We intend to use all the available tools to try and turn the wildcat away from the precipice of extinction, including: extensive field surveys, the latest genetic research, captive breeding and public awareness campaigns.

Photo by Alex Riddell

Photo by Alex Riddell

Probably the most important element of the plan is to dramatically increase efforts to remove the continuing threat of hybridisation (cross-breeding) with domestic cats.  This is the single greatest cause of the current plight of the wildcat, extinction by dilution.  There are three main groups of cats that need to be addressed: feral domestic cats and hybrids that live in the wild without any assistance from humans; farm cats that are kept to control vermin; and people’s pet cats.  It is these latter two groups that local people can assist with.  What we want to do is ensure that people’s domestic cats are not adding to the problem by breeding with wildcats and producing more hybrids.  Responsible cat keepers who have their animals neutered and vaccinated, and persuade their friends and relatives with cats to do the same, will be actively helping the wildcat.  Cats can breed from around six months old and so kittens need to be neutered when they reach four months.

Photo by Alex Riddell

Photo by Alex Riddell

If the wildcat is to be saved, it will require everyone living in the Highlands to play their part.  If it is left solely to the organisations that are part of the SNH action plan, the job will be harder and less likely to succeed.  On the 29th of July 2013, two female kittens were born at the Highland Wildlife Park.  At some point in the moderately near future, one or both will be moved to another institution that participates in the breeding programme. They will go on to produce their own offspring and help grow the zoo-based safety net population of wildcats.  It is hoped that at some point in the future, areas of the Highlands will be clear of feral cats and hybrids and our kittens’ descendants will be reintroduced to once again live as wild animals in Scotland.  My fear is that the problem of reproductively active domestic and hybrid cats threatening the genetic integrity of true wildcats will not be addressed as aggressively as it needs to be, by everyone, and eventually the only place where one will find a true wildcat is in a zoo enclosure.  Successful conservation programmes have invariably had strong support from those that live near the species concerned and the wildcat will be no different.

“First published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald”


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