• by: Isa Villanen
  • recipient: Home Secretary Mrs Theresa May, Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor Hon Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Mr Owen Paterson

I have been fascinated by the Scottish wild cat ever since I learned about its existence. After a lot of research the feline seems almost mythical, and elusive.

Source 1:

Felis silvestris grampia looks rather like a domestic cat, but is larger and more robust. It is solitary and territorial - territories can be up to 14 square kilometres.

The Scottish wildcat is a protected species, but there may be as few as 400 individuals left in the Scottish highlands, where hybridisation with feral cats is common. The wildcats' distinctive tails are bushy and ringed with blunt, black tips. Their coats are thick, dark, striped and heavily marked. In the UK the wildcat is now restricted mainly to Northeast Scotland.

Until 600 years ago it was widespread throughout Britain. Elsewhere in Europe the species Felis silvestris has a broad distribution.

Wildcats favour wooded landscapes with a mosaic of habitats especially semi-natural woodland, conifer plantation, scrub, moor land and pastureland. They are usually found below 500m, but have been recorded at over 800m above sea level.

The cats are mainly carnivorous, but eat a wide range of food including: small mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects, and vegetation.

Population biology
The population estimate for the Scottish wildcat was published by Harris et al (1995) who estimated 3,500 wildcats in Scotland based on distribution data and extrapolation of radio tracked data. There are various sightings from across Scotland and genetic testing of any dead wildcats helps scientists evaluate the population. Current estimates suggest there may be less than 400 pure bred Scottish wildcats left in the wild.

The most serious threat to the Scottish wildcat now comes from feral domestic cats, because: 1. inter-breeding (hybridisation) is reducing the number of pure-bred wildcats - this makes defining a true wildcat extremely difficult, and 2. diseases such as feline leukaemia virus are spreading and have already been detected in wildcats in Scotland

It is currently legal to control feral cats, and confusion between feral cats, wildcats and hybrids is having a major impact.

Habitat alteration and hunting pressure were probably responsible for the original decline of the species in Britain, and this is still true today.

Wildcats were treated as vermin by gamekeepers, and the extent of current accidental killing is unclear. Road traffic deaths are also a common cause of mortality in the Scottish wildcat. Since 1988 the wildcat has been a protected species, listed on schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is therefore illegal to kill a wildcat except under license. The wildcat is also a European Protected Species under the Habitats and Species Directive.

The wildcat is Britain’s last large mammal predator, but it could become extinct within the next decade. Fewer than 400 remain, all in Scotland – the last recorded wildcat in England was shot in 1849. A captive breeding programme has been set up in a bid to save the species.

Source 2:

Immediate action for Highland Tigers

16 November 2012
A range of national actions to save the Scottish wildcat look set to be agreed over the next six months.

The move follows the first-ever meeting of a diverse group of land management, research and conservation organisations at Scottish Natural Heritage’s (SNH) Battleby conference centre, near Perth, on Friday 14 September. The Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Group includes representatives from SNH (chair); Forestry Commission Scotland; Cairngorms National Park Authority; Scottish Wildcat Association; Royal Zoological Society of Scotland; Scottish Gamekeepers Association; National Museum of Scotland; University of Oxford, Wildlife Conservation Research Unit; Highland Foundation for Wildlife, and the National Trust for Scotland.

The main threat to wildcats is hybridisation with feral domestic cats which raises many challenges in correctly identifying wildcats from often fleeting sightings. The first action agreed by the group was an immediate targeted survey to identify the best surviving populations of wildcats. Survey work will be co-ordinated with the intention of identifying key regions to focus research and conservation actions within.

Other possibilities discussed included innovative approaches such as captive breeding and relocation of cats in the wild. However, the current emphasis is to obtain more up to date information on wildcat numbers and distribution which in turn will be used to prioritise action on the ground.

The group aims to have a comprehensive action plan underway by next spring forming a Scotland-wide approach to wildcat conservation overseen by SNH.

Ron Macdonald, SNH’s head of policy and advice, who chaired the meeting, said: “I am delighted that the meeting was extremely positive with all present committed to working together for the benefit of wildcat conservation. A range of options was discussed and we are open to suggestions of what actions can make a real difference for this species.

“What is important is that we are committed to urgently pressing on as a focused group to save this species. We all agree that it is in a parlous state and by working together we can help reverse the decline of the Scottish wildcat.”

Will Boyd-Wallis of Cairngorms National Park Authority said: “We are very pleased that continued action to save the wildcat is being led by SNH with such a diverse, experienced and strong minded group. One of the strengths of the Cairngorms Wildcat project was the combination of voluntary effort by land managers, gamekeepers and by Cats Protection alongside rigorous camera trap research. We are determined to assist the action group in encouraging this to continue in the Cairngorms National Park and elsewhere.”

George Macdonald of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) said: “Following on from our involvement with the Cairngorms Wildcat Project, we feel it is enormously important the efforts to preserve the wildcat continue at a critical time and we are happy to assist this process again.”

Iain Valentine, director of research and conservation for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, said: “We are keen to extend our commitment to wildcat conservation by using the various specialised skills sets that we have at RZSS, such as captive husbandry, breeding expertise and an on-site genetics team, and play a key role within the SNH-co-ordinated Wildcat Conservation Action Group. All of the parties represented at the meeting are unanimous in the opinion that time is of the essence and this joint approach to saving this Scottish icon helps assure a successful outcome.” Individual members of the Conservation Action Group will work together in task groups focused on key aspects of wildcat conservation such as research, taxonomy, genetics and captive breeding, developing proposals alongside other experts and presenting these for approval by the core action group.

Source 3:

The 'UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework' (July 2012)

The ‘UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework’ now (July 2012) succeeds the UK BAP and ‘Conserving Biodiversity – the UK Approach’, and is the result of a change in strategic thinking following the publication of the CBD’s ‘Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020’ and its 20 ‘Aichi targets’, at Nagoya, Japan in October 2010, and the launch of the new EU Biodiversity Strategy (EUBS) in May 2011. The framework demonstrates how the work of the four countries and the UK contributes to achieving the ‘Aichi targets’, and identifies the activities required to complement the country biodiversity strategies in achieving the targets.

Following publication of the UK Biodiversity Framework, the UK BAP web-pages have recently (August 2012) been further revised. Links to pages which are no longer of relevance have been re-directed, and an archived version (June 2012) of the UK BAP web-pages is available in The National Archives. Relevant information and key documents can, however, still be accessed via the links below, and through the Timeline.

UK BAP species and habitat information includes the 'Species account pages', which provide collated information about priority species under UK BAP. Country-level information provides details of the most recent country strategies and documents.

Biodiversity Action Reporting System (BARS): a web-based information system that describes action taken to achieve specific biodiversity objectives, in order to better inform biodiversity planning, co-ordinate effort and meet reporting requirements.
Habitat Management on the Web: a search engine designed to provide information about how best to manage non-marine habitats in the UK for biodiversity and conservation.

Source 4:

Scottish wildcat could be extinct 'within two years'

The Scottish wildcat is now one of the world's rarest animals, the scientist said. A scientist who has developed a genetic test to identify pure Scottish wildcats has warned that the species could be extinct within two years. Dr Paul O'Donoghue said cross breeding with feral and hybrid cats made extinction a certainty unless "urgent" conservation activity took place. The University of Chester biologist said pure wildcats should be trapped. He also suggested that private individuals could be keeping the "very best" wildcats as pets. The senior lecturer in biology asked for these people to come forward and help with the conservation effort. In remote and rural parts of the Highlands it is known for people to take wildcats that visit their properties into their care.

Dr O'Donoghue and his team have developed a test that can look at a small blood sample and scan all of the 63,000 genes that make up any individual cat. The test then compares the genes against a genetic model of a pure wildcat, providing "definitive statistics" on the level of hybridisation present in the tested individual. One of the major challenges for the project was finding reference samples of pure-bred Scottish wildcats.

In collaboration with Dr Andrew Kitchener, curator at National Museums Scotland, Dr O'Donoghue searched through hundreds of museum specimens in the Natural History Museums in Edinburgh and London, to find cats that showed no signs of hybridisation.
Dr O'Donoghue said: "In contrast to previous wildcat genetic work, only these pure wildcat samples were used for the reference samples.

"They spanned the past 140 years and are the very best wildcat specimens in existence."
But he added: "Our research shows that the plight of the wildcat is now so serious that unless urgent and targeted conservation activities take place, its extinction due to hybridisation is a certainty. "Recent estimates suggest that fewer than 100 remain, making it one of the rarest animals in the world. "Unless decisive action is taken, the wildcat could be declared extinct with the next 12 to 24 months."

Eyewitness reports
The biologist said the animal was now one of the rarest in the world. He said it was of the "utmost importance" that large scale live trapping took place and cats found to be pure-bred wildcats then be placed in protected areas in the west Highlands.
A team put together by the Scottish Wildcat Association (SWA) reviewed 2,000 records of camera trap sightings, eyewitness reports and also road kills. SWA said the analysis suggested there could be 35 wildcats - far fewer than previously thought. Other research has estimated that there could be less than 400 pure-bred cats. Earlier in 2012, a report on a project funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) estimated that there were 150 breeding pairs left.

Honourable Secretaries,

We, the undersigned, ask you to take immediate steps to ensure the Scottish wildcat’s future and its species purity. The facts are distressing, to say the least, since about only 400 cats are expected to exist in the wild in pure genetic form.

The biggest threat of interbreeding with feral cats in a harsh reality, and as genetic tests have been developed, the Houses of Parliament should start a testing and protection programme without delay.

The co-operation with e.g. the JNCC and The Highland Tiger and The Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Group together with governmental Environment, Foods and Rural Affairs Committee would help the situation of the Scottish wildcat, and with government funding the research and protection plan and also the breeding programme would get well on the way to preserve this Highland Tiger, rarer than the Tiger, for the future generations, and also would help the maintain the biodiversity of Scotland’s Highlands.

The Scottish wildcat has its ecological niche in the Scotland’s woods, and its protection is urgent, as Dr Paul O'Donoghue said cross breeding with feral and hybrid cats made extinction a certainty unless "urgent" conservation activity took place. The University of Chester biologist said pure wildcats should be trapped. He also suggested that private individuals could be keeping the "very best" wildcats as pets. The senior lecturer in biology asked for these people to come forward and help with the conservation effort. In remote and rural parts of the Highlands it is known for people to take wildcats that visit their properties into their care.

Dr O'Donoghue and his team have developed a test that can look at a small blood sample and scan all of the 63,000 genes that make up any individual cat. This will help to find the pure felines, but time is running short for the Scottish wildcat.

We hope to see the Scottish wildcat protection and breeding programme started as soon as possible, and in our minds it is above the Draft Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Bill.

We remain,
Yours sincerely,

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