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Plan launched to save Scotland’s wildcats

24/09/2013 16:22:16

Experts believe that the Scottish wildcat population numbers just 35 individuals. (c) Neville Buck,

Captive breeding and targeting feral cats
September 2013. A new action plan to reverse the decline of the Scottish wildcat within six years has been launched by Scottish Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse. It sets out for the first time a package of measures that a range of land managers, conservationists, and researchers agree has the best prospect for the ‘Highland Tiger.'

Prevent cross breeding
The aim is to conserve Scottish wildcats by reducing the chances of cross breeding with domestic and feral cats and by lowering the risk to wildcats from feline diseases. Efforts will be targeted in areas which support the most viable wildcat populations. And a conservation breeding programme will be set up to reinforce wild populations in the future. Scientists will also carry out further research to improve understanding of wildcat ecology and genetics.

Feral cats

Feral cats are a major huiscance for wildlife, and in America research has shown that they kill some 2.4 billion birds and as many as 12 billion mammals every year in the USA, and have been responsible for the extinction of 33 species. 

Why release these pests back into the wild in Scotland, to predate on native wildlife? 

Coordinating trapping, neutering and vaccination of feral cats and hybrids
The scale of coordinating trapping, neutering and vaccination of feral cats and hybrids has not previously been attempted on such a scale in Scotland.

Speaking before the launch in Edinburgh, Mr Wheelhouse said: "The Scottish wildcat is an iconic species that is emblematic of the wild parts of Scotland. As a society we have a legal and moral obligation to try and conserve the species, so that it continues to be part of our natural heritage for generations to come.

By 2019 the partnership project aims to have:

  • Identified and secured at least five stable populations of Scottish wildcats in the wild; 
  • Promoted in these areas greater awareness of the threats to wildcats from feral cats, domestic cats and hybrids;
  • Ensured that householders and others in wildcat ‘hot spots' recognise the importance of having their cats neutered and vaccinated. 
  • A better understanding of wildcat distribution, numbers and the extent of hybridisation with domestic cats.
Will rely heavily on the assistance of Scotland's cat owners
"The Scottish Wildcat Action Plan builds on the good work already undertaken and existing expertise and understanding of the Scottish wildcat. The success of the plan will depend not just on the project partners but on the uptake by individuals, such as gamekeepers, farmers, and, crucially, we will rely heavily on the assistance of Scotland's cat owners in preventing hybridisation of the species."

Captive breeding
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and The Aspinall Foundation are leading on developing plans for a conservation breeding programme.  This will draw on existing captive collections where suitable animals exist.  It will also likely require that wildcats are taken from the wild under licence from SNH with the specific purpose of breeding for conservation reintroductions. 

Response from Scottish Wildcat Association

A response to the Scottish Government / SNH Wildcat Action Plan from founder and former chairman of the Scottish Wildcat Association, and former member of the SNH Wildcat Action Plan Group, Steve Piper. 

News that £2m is to be spent on Scottish wildcats should be a cause for celebration, but the devil is in the detail and there's not much of that in the Scottish Government's wildcat action plan.

Ignoring that a 3 page to-do list and 9 pages of PR fluff isn't actually an action plan, the most notable omission is the pure, un-hybridised Scottish wildcat. The first question asked of the advisory group by SNH was whether the pure wildcat was worth the effort; many of us thought it was, but the only mention it receives in the final document is a note that it is not what the plan will be trying to save.

Instead we are told about "distinct groups of cats" and "relaxed definitions"; in short, anything that looks roughly two-thirds wildcat will be classified as a wildcat, so in the time it takes to say "recontextualised" the population has ballooned from 35 individuals to thousands; quite a few pet cat owners worldwide will be waking up tomorrow morning to find they have a Government-approved Scottish wildcat purring at the end of the bed.

Looks are important for Scottish wildcats; those looks indicate the millions of years of evolution that created an animal perfectly adapted for living in wild Scotland; any compromise on those looks compromises how the animal behaves. A hybridised wildcat is less capable of surviving harsh winters and will overpopulate in mild years to compensate, placing huge pressure on our native species and increasing the risk of toxoplasma infections in agricultural animals and humans. It will have kittens at the wrong time of year which will starve and freeze in their thousands every winter because they are too young and weak to survive such weather. It is less fearful of man so will cause conflict far more often stealing from farmers, crofters and gamekeepers.

These are just some of the problems that emerge when you fail to conserve nature and settle for a quick fix that brushes a tricky problem under the carpet, but the most certain side effect of setting standards so low is that the pure and near-pure wildcats that are still out there will be condemned to hybridise down to the lowest common denominator. This isn't the day that the Scottish wildcat was saved; it is the day that it was forced into extinction.

The Government's action plan is the precise opposite of conservation, aiming to protect the very threat that has brought us to this point whilst claiming innovation setting up breeding programs that already exist, carrying out genetics work that has already been done, launching surveys which have been attempted four times already and un-educating the public to believe that any tabby cat with a striped tail is a wildcat. We've seen and heard this all before; every time the Government has claimed to be prioritising the wildcat and failed to over the last decade, every time a comprehensive new survey has been launched and failed to deliver a population estimate, every time a ground breaking SNH sponsored project has discovered a lost population of hundreds of wildcats kind enough to locate themselves in the Highland's largest tourist attraction, only to disappear into the ether after the press release lands.

It is a back of an envelope calculation with no ideas on how to achieve any of its aims or even how to fully finance them, and what it truly represents is an exercise in re-branding an embarrassing decade of incompetence as a tourism asset centred in the Cairngorms National Park; wildcat-free for decades but full of SNH-friendly organisations who either don't know enough about wildcats to understand what they're supporting, are entirely happy to sell out the principles they were founded upon, or just don't want to rock the boat and hope that things will eventually work themselves out, as they have hoped for the last ten years.

There is a last chance; the Wildcat Haven project established by the Scottish Wildcat Association in the West Highlands is still pushing to conserve the pure wildcat, now under the leadership of Dr Paul O'Donoghue and working hand in hand with the recently announced Aspinall Foundation breeding centre on Carna. This represents the true wildcat action plan, one with three years of field trials already completed on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, and which details every minute step to be taken neutering feral cats, identifying true wildcats and supporting it all with captive breeding. Sadly it remains the only effort to conserve the unique Scottish wildcat that is so intimately tied with Scotland's natural and cultural history and has fought such a long battle to survive; we can only hope the Government evolves its plan to try and conserve the best possible wildcat, rather than the most easily reached target.
This is a shameful effort from the Government after an entire year of consultation and a truly tragic day for the Scottish wildcat, which deserves so much better.

Careful consideration has been given to this issue given the status of wild populations. A well-planned breeding programme is expected to complement support of the wild population and deliver conservation benefits.

Ron Macdonald, SNH's head of policy and advice, stressed: "We at Scottish Natural Heritage have coordinated this plan and we will work closely with the Scottish Government and our partners to monitor its effectiveness. This is an effective partnership of many quite separate organisations who represent a range of interests.

"We are all committed to conserving this rare and elusive species. And though we do not currently have reliable estimates for the number of wildcats remaining in the wild, everyone agrees there is now some urgency to address the threats they face. We recognise this, and work is already underway to identify the wildcat priority areas and to find out more about the genetic make-up of wild-living cat populations."

Gordon Buchanan
Well-known wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan, who captured remote camera images of tigers living in the Himalayas for the BBC series Lost Land of the Tiger, has yet to film Scottish wildcats in the wild.

Backing the scheme, he said: "I have spent time in the Scottish Highlands trying to catch a glimpse of this elusive and fascinating predator, and I would like to add my voice to the chorus saying that we need to do all we can to preserve our native wildcats. It is heartening to see the new efforts to save this creature which deserves its place in the pantheon of Scottish species."

Safety net
Rob Ogden from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland said: "Continuing to conserve populations in the wild is the priority, but as a safety net we want to develop a breeding programme designed to reinforce the natural population through the release of cats fully prepared for life in the wild.

"Of course before we start thinking about releasing animals we need to first address the factors that are currently threatening wild populations."

Announcing the first stage of Heritage Lottery funding, Colin McLean, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Scotland, said: "This year, the Year of Natural Scotland, brings into focus the natural beauty and biodiversity that surrounds us. We have some incredible native wildlife in Scotland but our species and habitats are under constant threat. The plight of the Scottish wildcat is well known and has now reached a critical stage. With this action plan and the Heritage Lottery Fund support announced today, we hope communities across the country will be inspired and empowered to safeguard the existence of this rare and elusive creature."

Scottish Wildcat  - Courtesy of the Scottish Wildcat Association


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