WILDCAT

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.

Countryfile Magazine - - Wildcats - By Amy-Jane Beer

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.”

FERAL FRIENDS

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.

RARE SIGHT­INGS

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.

WILDCAT HOTSPOTS

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

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