Saving Scotland's 'Highland Tiger'

| 19th December 2015
A Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris). Photo: By big-ashb via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
A Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris). Photo: By big-ashb via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Extinction is not just for exotic species in Africa or Asia, writes Louise Ramsay. Right here in the UK we have almost allowed our very own Scottish wildcat to disappear through persecution and mismanagement - despite its being a protected species under EU and Scottish law. Now it will take swift and effective action to bring it back from the brink.
If we Scots are to hold our heads up in the world of international wildlife conservation, we must not fail in saving this beautiful, fierce and enigmatic cat, the 'Highland Tiger', which has stalked our land for so many thousands of years.

The Scottish Wildcat is the British variant of the European wildcat, Felis sylvestris. Fossil evidence of wildcats in Scotland dates them back to the interglacial period two million years ago.

Glaciers wiped them out in Scotland but they returned after the last ice age, around 8,000 years ago and were joined, perhaps 2,000 years ago by domesticated cats, or Felis catus.

Felis Catus are thought to be descendants of an African or Middle Eastern wildcat. Recent genetic evidence shows that they were domesticated from as far back as 36,000 years ago.

The two cat species probably lived side-by-side but separately for most of the last 2,000 years in Britain, preferring their own kind. However, when they did eventually cross breed, they were closely related enough to be able to produce fertile, hybrid offspring.

Decades of persecution by gamekeepers meeting their landowners' desires for grouse or pheasant conservation for hunts, meant that by 1914 wildcats had been wiped out across the British and Irish Isles in all but the North and West of Scotland.

When the landowners and gamekeepers went off to fight in the First World War it gave the wildcats a break and they began to expand back into the rest of Scotland, but not to England and Wales where they have been missing since the mid-19th century. As they spread back through Scotland there were so few that the dispersing animals were often unable to find wildcat breeding partners and mated instead with domestic cats.

Wildcat sightings are now increasingly rare

Once the war was over, the persecution of wildcats began again and carried on through the decades, until the native wildcat's very survival in Scotland was in question. Persecution and the resultant hybridisation has made pure-bred wildcats very rare. Even once legal protection was finally in place the hybrids were shot with impunity as unprotected feral cats, as, no doubt, were any remaining purebreds, on the same pretext.

In the 1980s it was not uncommon to see Scottish wildcats (or hybrids with a lot of the wildcat about them) on the edges of the Angus glens, such as the hinterland of Alyth. You could spot a thick-banded cat's tail disappearing into the whins on the Alyth Hill or the many bright staring eyes of a female and kittens up in a tree by the headwaters of the Alyth burn.

It was always a delight to know that they were ranging about, but as the years went by these sightings became ever more rare. And how do yo know if you have seen one? It is not always easy but the pure-bred wildcats are larger, perhaps half as big again.

Wildcats are also more muscular than ferals or domestics and they have banded blunt-ended tails, with the dorsal stripe stopping at the base, whereas it extends to the tip in ferals and domestics. Wildcats also move and behave in a fiercer and more agile way than domestic cats.

But the most important difference is in its temperament. It is impossible to tame a true wildcat even if it is reared from infancy and hybrids also inherit something of this wild spirit. If you see a pure-bred wildcat, you can tell it is never going to be anybody's pet.

If we Scots are to hold our heads up in the world of international wildlife conservation, we must not fail in saving this beautiful, fierce and enigmatic cat, the 'Highland Tiger', which has stalked our land for so many thousands of years.

Last ditch effort for wildcat conservation

With pressure mounting from conservation groups and to meet international obligations, to secure the survival of an endangered European Protected Species,  the Scottish Government decided, in September 2013 to begin a serious conservation effort

This is not the first effort to save the Scottish wildcat but it is the most ambitious to date, made possible due to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It is almost certainly the last chance we will have to save them. Paul Wheelhouse MSP, Minister for the Environment, said of Scottish wildcats:

"We have given ourselves just six years to halt the decline. This is one of the most ambitious conservation plans ever produced in Scotland and the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Group will need every encouragement to succeed."

The first stage of the project's work was to survey historic wildcat areas across Scotland and identify at least 5 wildcat conservation zones where action could take place. This is difficult work as wildcats are very secretive, but the results of the study are just out.

In scoping for wildcat priority areas, the Scottish National Heritage (SNH) report highlighted 6 priority areas: Dalnain, Morvern, Strathavon, Strathbogie, Strathpeffer and Angus Glens. The latter, infamous for its record on wildlife crime, showed surprisingly higher numbers of cats with wild characteristics than other areas.

The expert vs Scottish National Heritage

The survey of the Angus Glens was largely carried out by Alan Ross, an ecologist from Blairgowrie. He used lures of his own design to bring the cats close to the cameras in order to record their presence.

He confirmed nine cats of reasonably good quality in the glens. Alan is now carrying out his own independent studies on around 30 wildcats of varying purity, using non-invasive camera trapping to study their behavioural ecology.

Ross's research has some interesting findings. "From initial results, I suspect that good hybrids may sometimes breed back to purer strains through natural selection when living in the wild, as I have found kittens which rate higher for wild characteristics than their parents", he wrote.

That is heartening news: it's wonderful to know that there are still some wildcats and "good hybrids" living in our local hills and glens. But Alan is deeply concerned that the policies carried out by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Scottish government's wildlife agency, may be counter-productive:

"Contrastingly I have noted that some female wildcats preferentially mate with feral cats due to the lack of un-related wildcats. This reluctance to breed with close relatives, coupled with the lack of connectivity between fragmented sub-populations supports my theory that hybridisation is mostly a consequence of persecution, fragmentation and genetically stagnant wildcat populations, rather than the main reason for decline."

Serious flaws in SNH's conservation plans

Ross believes that such is the urgency of the situation that SNH has to 'break out of the box' of its thinking to date, and connect scattered populations that lack the genetic diversity to flourish so long as they are separated:

"In 2015, I unsuccessfully challenged the proposed SNH strategy of limiting the wildcat priority area size to hold a mere 20 female cats, many of which will be related within sub-populations, and thus prone to the associated reduced fecundity and litter size, low disease resistance and increased genetic abnormalities, as already seen in some areas.

"I am proposing that SNH substantially increases at least two zones for future comparisons of management strategies and, creates habitat connectivity between habitat patches and sub-populations. One such example includes combining the Angus and Atholl wildcat populations, with the creation of wildcat corridors, thus increasing genetic diversity and the carrying capacity of the priority zone.

"In particular, I am urging SNH to take a visionary approach to the west coast populations by extending the limited Morvern population to create a Mainland Island Wildcat Reserve by extending the zone to utilise the natural geographical barriers of Loch Linnhe, north to Loch Eil and west to Loch Shiel / river Shiel, encompassing Ardnamurchan.

"As an easily defended, large scale wildcat reserve, together with promoting the wildcat as an apex predator and keystone species - the area could attract biodiversity offsetting and/or other funding for much needed native woodland expansion on a landscape scale, thus creating wildcat habitat and connectivity of sub populations, as well as opportunities for eco-tourism and job creation."

He also has a plan for one of Scotland's largest islands to become a haven for a pure-bred wildcat population: "My other equally ambitious suggestion is the creation of a wildcat reserve on the island of Mull, to be stocked with pure wildcats."

The critical task: to augment the gene pool

While Alan Ross' approach to wildcat conservation may not be altogether shared by SNH, it has been adopted for several years now with wildcat conservationists in Europe.

There the European wildcat population is expanding due to large-scale measures which focus on establishing large viable populations of over 500 cats, (with a minimum of 50 unrelated females), creating green belt / wooded habitat corridors, connecting isolated forest patches and wildcat populations, together with wildlife crossings on major road networks.

What is needed now is for the Scottish Government to continue to support the work of the Scottish Wildlife Conservation Action Group and encourage it to be bolder and more ambitious, while it assesses how best to safeguard these fragile populations, and  protect them from future hybridisation, habitat loss or disease.

Given the limited sizes and the isolation of these target wildcat populations, augmentation of the gene pool is more critical now than ever. This may be done by exchanging cats from different regions across Scotland; by bringing in some pure-bred European wildcats of the same species Felis sylvestris (though not of Scottish provenance); or by breeding pure or nearly pure Scottish wildcats from zoo stock and releasing their rehabilitated kittens into the wild.

A breeding project led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) is currently under way and they are also studying the spatial ecology of wildcats.

The next task will be to ensure that the impact of pet and feral cats, especially in the conservation areas, is minimised. We must also ensure that persecution is halted: a process which is already being carried out by dedicated individuals and soon to be rolled out under the Wildcat Action Plan, with feral cats being live trapped, inoculated, and neutered, before controversially - being released back into the wildcat zones.

Wildcats are specialist predators of small mammals

Some ecologists have suggested that a more effective strategy would be to remove feral cats completely from priority areas and create an encompassing TNR buffer zone, which would remove the threat of disease, competition for resources and crucially - free up habitat for dispersing juvenile wildcats, rather than losing them into lowland sinks, as they seek unoccupied territories.

Neutered feral and pet cats still present a disease risk and territorial competition to wildcats. Pets in particular have the edge in a hard winter with a diet supplemented by owners, and feral cats are less likely to be vaccinated and may spread diseases into the wild population, which may prove fatal since they are likely to lack any of the immunisation of the domestic strains.

Luckily, many landowners and game-keepers have changed their attitudes and are now proud to have wildcats living on their estates. Indeed, studies on wildcat scats have shown they rarely kill ground-nesting birds, and may actually benefit them by preying upon stoats, pine martens and polecats.

The wildcat is a small-mammal specialist and its hunting can have a positive impact on the regeneration of native trees by reducing the browsing on seeds and young shoots by mice and voles.

A potential tragedy we must avoid

The progress of research work along with communication and education is vital to the success of the project and needs continuing support and encouragement from both the government and the public.

It would be a tragedy to lose the UK's only surviving wildcat from Scotland. If we Scots are to hold our heads up in the world of international wildlife conservation, we must not fail in saving this beautiful, fierce and enigmatic cat, the 'Highland Tiger',  which has stalked our land for so many thousands of years.

We must work to ensure that one day there will be plenty of wildcats out there once again, pouncing on prey in our fields, woods and hills.



Louise Ramsay campaigns for the future of Scottish wildlife. Follow her on Twitter @TayBeavers.

Also on The Ecologist by Louise Ramsay: 'Scotland's wild beaver 'shoot to kill' policy is illegal and wrong'.

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