The race to rescue Scotland’s few remaining wildcats is on, and it involves a community effort in which conservationists, landowners, the public and even family pets are playing a part.
In a tumbledown shed in a corner of Clashindarroch Forest in Aberdeenshire, a wad of hay has been stuffed into an old feed trough. A well-packed circular impression suggests a regular occupant, and this cosy bed may the closest I’ll ever get to a free-living Scottish wildcat.
Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA) project officer Emma Rawling sets up a camera trap and baits the area with catnip and tinned tuna. The scent of oily fish, she says, lingers longer than that of other food, so the spot will be attractive even after the bait is eaten.
Spring is unfurling cautiously in the Highlands. There was a crust of snow on the car this morning, but the damp flushes of this remote valley are splattered with the scrambled yellow-green of golden saxifrage and the fluttering hankies of wood anemones. Emma is transitioning too, from a long winter of trapping cats to a summer of monitoring them.
The Scottish wildcat is our rarest and most threatened native mammal, a distinct type of the European wildcat and a close cousin of the smaller Middle Eastern wildcat, from which domestic cats are descended. It was persecuted to the brink of extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries, but made a slight recovery when gamekeeping declined after the two World Wars.
Contrary to popular imagination, wildcats are not naturally creatures of high mountains or deep dark woods. In truth, they are edge-lovers – favouring forest fringes, rocky rough ground, and low intensity farmland on the margins of human distribution.
Wildcat ranges are dictated by the seasonally changing needs of females. A mother may den in a rocky cairn or outcrop, safe from foxes, dogs or badgers, then move her family to a secluded area of forest when they’re old enough to begin exploring. Within the area she needs access to food – mainly rabbits, voles and groundnesting birds – and a network of linear features such as hedges, walls, ditches and dykes, whose cover allows her to traverse the land unnoticed. Male cats live where females do, their larger ranges usually overlapping those of several potential mates.
Persecution may have waned, but the species’ decline continues as a result of
“WITH ESTIMATES OF FEWER THAN 300 INDIVIDUALS LEFT, THIS IS ELEVENTH-HOUR CONSERVATION”
a more insidious threat. Wildcats are not the only cats in the Highlands. The region is home to many thousands of feral domestic cats, strays and free-ranging pets, all of which are able to interbreed with Scottish wildcats and produce viable offspring. Often these no-name hybrids have a look of wildcat to the untrained eye, but they are genetically diluted. The percolation of domestic genes deep into the wildcat population is extinction by stealth.
Scottish Wildcat Action is a five-year project to turn around the fortunes of the species. With estimates of fewer than 300 pure, or pure-ish individuals left, this is eleventh-hour conservation. Wildcat expert Dr Roo Campbell is working alongside 22 different organisations to tackle the hybridisation issue and to conduct active research into the ecology of wildcats.
TRAPPINGS OF SUCCESS
Emma Rawling is one of three SWA project officers. With a background in veterinary nursing and conservation, she has helped develop a protocol for trapping and neutering thousands of feral domestic and low-quality hybrid cats in six priority areas around Scotland. The strategy, known as TNVR, involves vaccinating and worming the cats. It’s labour-intensive and costly. Given the imminent threat to wildcat survival, was consideration given to culling the ferals? “That was ruled out,” says Emma. “There’s a lot of good science to show it’s ineffective. Culling creates a vacuum. Cats are territorial, so when one is killed, others move in and targeted populations become less stable, more stressed and prone to disease, which makes matters worse for feral and wildcats.”
There’s more to TNVR than controlling feral cat numbers, says Emma. “The cats we treat are healthier, not only because of the vaccinations and worming, but because once neutered they’re at less risk from lethal and untreatable viral diseases such as feline leukaemia and feline AIDS, which can be transmitted sexually or during fights.”
At a farm on the edge of the forest we meet Mrs Mitchell, a sprightly 91-year-old, who recently agreed to Emma trapping the large colony of feral cats inhabiting her property. “She took a little convincing,” says Emma, “but she’s very fond of them and recognised that TNVR was best for their welfare.”
Of the 18 cats trapped, two had to be euthanised due to untreatable conditions, but the rest were returned, including Mrs Mitchell’s favourite, Simon.
I ask if Mrs Mitchell if she knew there were wildcats living so close? “Oh yes,” she says. “Two of them used to come. And maybe they bred with my cats. That’d be where the stripy ones came from.” She looks disapproving and I can see the value of this project being pro-cat rather than just pro-wildcat. Feral does not necessarily mean unloved and Mrs Mitchell’s concern is not for wildcats, but for Simon and his kind. Culling them would be out of the question, but TNVR is a win-win.
By no means all feral cats live in colonies. Many are solitary, and loners living close to their wild cousins pose a particular risk. The project relies heavily on sightings reported by the public. Emma responds by setting a run of cage traps, which have to be checked every 12 hours – a gruelling schedule, especially in the depths of winter. Catching a single cat has taken her anything from one night to five-and-half weeks.
By April, trapping is suspended due to the risk of catching pregnant or nursing mothers, but the work doesn’t stop there. The SWA team are also trying to find out more about wildcat ecology and biology. Camera traps and radio collars have revolutionised the study of these elusive animals, and Emma regularly checks up to 80 cameras around her patch in response to public sightings. We visit one in a garden near Huntly, where resident Brian reported seeing a wildcat passing through. Sure enough, the camera reveals a stripy bottom, the tail distinctively banded.
The six wildcat priorities areas are Angus Glens, Northern Strathspey, Strathavon, Movern, Strathbogie and Strathpeffer. Get involved SWA rely on sightings from the public. If you see a wildcat, a feral domestic cat or a hybrid cat in any of the project areas, please report it via the website scottishwildcataction.org
We stop at Tap o’Noth Farm, where permaculturist Jamie Reid photographed a wildcat eating one of his ducks in daylight in January. “I’d let them out of the pen to clean it and nipped into the house for a minute. When I looked out of the window there it was.” Given the loss of the duck, Jamie’s attitude to his visitor is positive. “I was really pleased – it’s great to know we’ve got good habitat here and it’s something we should be proud of. Volunteers come here for working holidays and it’s great to tell them we still have these large predators around.”
It is clear that Emma spends as much time engaging with people as with cats. With the Mitchells, there was talk of new sheep and the ground being too dry to plant carrots. At Tap o’Noth, Jamie asks if she’d like a few spare onion sets for her garden. Brian is disappointed that we don’t have time to stop for tea. Everyone is invited to a forthcoming SWA social. Clearly, the ‘cat lady’ values her rapport with local people. “Too right,” says Emma. “Goodwill is everything, and it pays back.”
So realistically, is there hope? “Look,” says Emma, bluntly. “The main criticism I hear is that we should have done this 20 years ago. And that’s true. We’re responding very late. Another problem is that we’re preserving islands of population, in between which are vast areas of barren land, which it would be difficult for a wildcat to cross. Unless we get a larger landscape change in terms of wildcat-friendly practices, there will always be a problem. But I try to remember that wildcats were legally protected at the same time as badgers and pine martens. Those other species have recovered nicely, despite facing many of the same problems. The difference for wildcats is hybridisation, and we’re tackling that.”
Would it be enough, I wonder, to fill Scotland with animals that look and act like wildcats, even if they are genetically a bit compromised? “Almost,” says Emma. “What I want is for Scotland to be home to a thriving population of animals whose mostly wildcat ancestry means they look like wildcats, act like wildcats and continue do the job of wildcats in an ecological sense. That would be a massive success.”
ABOVE Scottish wildcat volunteer baits a trap with tinned tuna TOP Wildcats’ favourite food is rabbit, but they will also eat voles, rats, mice and hares
Scottish Wildcat Action officer Emma Rawling sets up a camera in a garden in Huntly, Aberdeenshire
Amy stayed at Aspen Croft in Tomavoulin, in the Strathavon wildcat area near Clashindarroch Forest. Find it on Airbnb: airbnb.co.uk/rooms/17234919?loc ation=Tomnavoulin&s=e-rvZxwO