The Scottish Wildcat is Britain's last remaining native cat species since the extinction of the Northern Lynx, around 1,500 years ago. Now it is under threat to become extinct too, cat diseases, road casualties and even still illegal persecution pose a threat but the main risk is hybridisation with the feral cat. Of course any hybridisation that occurs, only adds to the problem, putting more hybrid cats out their to possibly breed with the very few remaining pure wildcats there are... but how many pure wildcats are truly left in the wild of Scotland?
The truth is, no one really knows. The Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) put a figure of less than 400 pure wildcats remain, however, very recently the Scottish Wildcat Association (SWA) estimate that there are around 3,500 hybrid cats of which only 1 in a 100 of these are pure... giving a populations of only 35 pure wildcats left in the wild! Due to some areas not being covered by the survey, and only estimations, it seems that at the moment the most common figure banded around is that there are less than 100 pure Scottish wildcats left in Scotland today! Less than 100!.. that's about the same number of children and adults we have a day here during a school trip... incredible!
So what can be done? Well, it seems to be very difficult. Starting with less than a hundred in the wild is a difficult place to start, and with possibly only around 50 in captivity... of which going on SWA numbers only half of a cat would be 100% pure, its a tricky position to be in.
It seems inevitable however, that captive breeding will be needed to help the wildcat to survive in as purest form as is possible. But before any future releases can be considered, the threat in the wild has to be removed.
This is where the "Wildcat Haven" project comes in to play. This is a conservation plan which has set aside a large area in Scotland for a potential future release site. Public education and awareness is being undertaken, road users are being made aware of the possible crossings of wildcats and all the feral cats are being caught up to be neutered to reduce the risk of interbreeding once the releases start. As well as this, an exciting new genetic test is being field trialed as part of Wildcat Haven. They have recently been given permission to trap potential wildcats to take blood samples from.
Whilst all this is happening, research into the purity of captive cats is underway. Previously only tested on pelage, it is now hopefully that next year DNA testing will be able to take place to work out for certain the purity of all wildcats in captivity. This will give everyone a better understanding of what we are up against, and then through the co-ordination of the wildcat studbook holder at Port-Lympne, the best cats available will be able to be paired up with each other at suitable breeding centres to try and breed the purist cats possible for release. By choosing the pairings carefully, it could be possible to "breed out" any feral genes and get some pure wildcats for a release programme.
So what are we doing to help? Well here at the BWC, we have had wildcats for many years, and on the old pelage tests, they have appeared to be some of the purest around for captive cats.
We have had breeding success in the past, with any kittens going to other centres for education purposes or potential breeding cats, but in recent years we put our breeding on hold to see how the future of captive wildcats may be used for the benefit of their wild counterparts.
We are participating members in the Scottish wildcat studbook, and support the work being done by the Scottish Wildcat Association and hope to, in the future, be able to use our experience in caring for and breeding these cats to be able to help create a generation of wildcats which will end up being released back in to the Scottish highlands.
In more immediate terms, we are working with the studbook holder in deciding what, if any, of our wildcats will breed for next year. With limited space in captivity it is important that it is used for the genetically best cats available, but at the same time... even very good looking hybrid cats can have an important role in the education of the wildcat.
It seems inevitable that if nothing is done, we will end up losing our last remaining cat species in Britain. So to keep it here we have to act, and act now! It is all well and good to say "too little too late" is being done, but surely we shouldn't let this cat go extinct without a fight! Mike Tomkies, author, naturalist and patron of the SWA once said about the wildcat "They'll fight to the death for their freedom, they epitomise what it takes to be truly free." Surely for a cat with that attitude, we owe them the same level of commitment to help them to survive!
To learn and read far more about the Scottish wildcat and the conservation efforts going on, check out the two links below for two of the leading organisations working towards creating a better future for our last remaining native cat... our own "Highland Tiger"