SHOULD WE BRING BACK THE WILD­CATS OF OLDE ENG­LAND?

We are rein­tro­duc­ing beavers, wa­ter voles, dormice and pine martens with great suc­cess. Could wild­cats be next – or is that an im­pos­si­ble dream?

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - TALKING POINT - By Peter Cooper Felis sil­vestris,

The twitch of a blunt tipped, dark-ringed tail in the shadow of a hawthorn; an amber eye fixed on the rab­bit feed­ing just three bounds away. The quarry barely has time to re­alise what’s hap­pen­ing as the wild­cat’s mus­cu­lar limbs pro­pel it out of the scrub. Af­ter a short, squeal­ing, kick­ing strug­gle, a meal fit for her kit­tens is se­cured.

Many a wildlife-watcher has trav­elled to Scot­land in the hope of wit­ness­ing such an en­counter. But once upon a time this scene did not only play out in the High­lands. The un­wary rab­bit I have pic­tured may just as eas­ily have met its demise af­ter stray­ing too far from its war­ren in the low­lands of Eng­land or Wales some 300 years ago.

Many peo­ple still re­fer to the last re­main­ing British fe­lid as the ‘Scot­tish wild­cat’, fix­ated on the idea that this charis­matic mem­ber of the cat fam­ily is spe­cialised for life in the rugged scree slopes, heather and pine forests of the far north­west. The re­al­ity is rather dif­fer­ent. Wild­cats were for­merly wide­spread across the en­tirety of Britain un­til only a few cen­turies ago. Their sci­en­tific name, mean­ing the ‘wood­cat’, high­lights that they were once quite con­tent prowl­ing the broadleave­d wood­lands and mead­ows of our low­lands.

Ev­i­dence of English and Welsh wild­cats be­gins with bones dat­ing from be­fore the last Ice Age, which have been un­cov­ered along­side those of cave lions. Al­though iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of wild­cat re­mains fol­low­ing the Iron Age is com­pli­cated by the ar­rival of do­mes­tic cats, the many cat-based place names in re­mote ru­ral lo­ca­tions – Cat­more, Catnab and Cargill, for ex­am­ple – are be­lieved to be in­dica­tive of their for­mer pres­ence.

Hunt­ing li­cences in the Mid­dle Ages list wild­cats as a tar­get quarry, and they were of­ten de­spised due to their tem­per. A pas­sage from the 15th-cen­tury hunt­ing tome The Mas­ter of Game says of the wild­cat: “Ev­ery hunter in Eng­land knows its fear­less­ness and mal­ice well enough… if any beast has the devil’s strength in him it is the wild­cat.”

Co­or­di­nated per­se­cu­tion of wild­cats be­gan in 1566 with the ‘Acte for the Presyr­va­tion of Grayne’. This leg­is­la­tion en­cour­aged the killing of any mam­mal or bird per­ceived to con­flict with hu­mans; as con­sumers of poul­try and rab­bits, wild­cats were high on the hit list. Records of boun­ties kept by church­war­dens across the coun­try give some idea of the scale of the slaugh­ter. For ex­am­ple, 142 wild­cats were killed be­tween 1684–1786 in the Cum­brian parish of St Bees alone, while in the south-west 311 wild­cats were ex­ter­mi­nated in 1629–99 in the small north Devon parish of Hart­land. The ex­act

mo­ment wild­cats went ex­tinct in Eng­land and Wales is hard to as­cer­tain, though it seems likely that the rise of the shoot­ing es­tate was the fi­nal nail in the cof­fin for any sur­vivors cling­ing on in north­ern or south-western coun­ties. By this point even the re­main­ing pop­u­la­tions in Scot­land were con­fined to the most in­ac­ces­si­ble of habi­tats.

A brief re­prieve for wild­cats came with the so­cial up­heavals of World War One and the crash in game­keeper num­bers, cou­pled with the swathe of new conifer plan­ta­tions that fol­lowed the cre­ation of the Forestry Com­mis­sion in 1919. Bar­ring this, it is pos­si­ble the wild­cat would have been ex­tir­pated from the UK for good.

But an­other, more in­sid­i­ous, threat emerged. Over many years Scot­land’s wild­cats have hy­bridised with do­mes­tic cats – both farm cats and wide-rang­ing feral an­i­mals – and this in­ter­ac­tion means few ‘pure’ free-liv­ing in­di­vid­u­als are be­lieved to re­main. The tiny relict pop­u­la­tion of pure, or al­most-pure, wild­cats in the High­lands is now the fo­cus of one of the UK’s most in­tense species con­ser­va­tion projects. Mean­while, al­though Scot­land’s wild­cats are pro­tected, a de­gree of il­licit per­se­cu­tion con­tin­ues. Time is run­ning out: much of the avail­able habi­tat re­mains sub-op­ti­mal, and an ap­par­ent de­cline in rab­bit prey doesn’t help. Could restor­ing wild­cats to their for­mer English and Welsh haunts help se­cure the species’ na­tional fu­ture? Or would it be a fu­tile pur­suit?

To in­ves­ti­gate this ques­tion I’ve re­cently started work­ing with the Derek Gow Con­sul­tancy, a Devon-based con­ser­va­tion group that spe­cialises in na­tive-species rein­tro­duc­tions. Derek has over 25 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence of restor­ing wa­ter voles across the UK and is a lead­ing au­thor­ity on im­port­ing and mon­i­tor­ing beavers. More re­cently he has col­lab­o­rated with the Knepp Cas­tle Es­tate in Sus­sex to re­store white storks as English breed­ing birds (see News Fea­ture, p60).

Derek feels that the time is right for wild­cats to roam Eng­land and Wales again. “It is clear that wild­cats will never be able to re­turn to south­ern parts of their for­mer British range through any process of nat­u­ral spread,” he says. “Even if a few in­di­vid­u­als were able to slip through the in­dus­tri­alised en­vi­ron­ments of Scot­land’s cen­tral belt, they would be low-qual­ity hy­brids.”

The his­toric loss of tree cover in Eng­land and Wales over the past 500 years must have ac­cel­er­ated the wild­cat’s de­cline, but most for­est had been cleared long be­fore the species fi­nally went ex­tinct there. In other words, habi­tat loss was not the main driver. In Spain, Por­tu­gal and Italy, wild­cats are more likely to oc­cur in mo­saics of scrub and pas­ture­land, and in Scot­land, too, wild­cats ap­pear to pre­fer large blocks of grass­land with plenty of rab­bits and small mam­mal prey. In Ger­many, their ideal habi­tat is mixed broadleave­d woodland, with open ar­eas for hunt­ing small mam­mals and dead trees for shel­ter and breed­ing.

Land­scapes like this still sur­vive in Eng­land and Wales. Think, for ex­am­ple, of Grizedale For­est in Cum­bria, the For­est of Dean, the wooded val­leys of mid-Wales, the Mendips in north Som­er­set, the Black­downs on the Som­er­set/Devon bor­der, the New For­est and Dorset’s Purbeck. Rein­tro­duc­tion of wild­cats may there­fore be ten­able.

One big prob­lem re­mains: in­ter­breed­ing with do­mes­tic cats. In Britain, there are

es­ti­mated to be over 620,000 feral cats. While most of these tend to live around built-up ar­eas, when rein­tro­duced wild­cats started to dis­perse from their re­lease sites, would those pure in­di­vid­u­als be swamped by hy­bridi­s­a­tion with tab­bies and other mog­gies?

Derek Gow points out that the Eu­ro­pean ex­pe­ri­ence sug­gests a dif­fer­ent out­come. “It may be that the wide­spread hy­bridi­s­a­tion we are see­ing be­tween wild and do­mes­tic cats in Scot­land is the end re­sult of a com­plex com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors,” he says. “These might in­clude poor-qual­ity habi­tat, his­toric and on­go­ing per­se­cu­tion by hu­mans and ex­ten­sive land-use changes over time. Else­where in Europe, it is sim­ply not the case that, as wild­cats ex­pand their range into land­scapes pop­u­lated by do­mes­tic cats, they swiftly hy­bridise and dis­ap­pear.”

Cross-breed­ing only ap­pears to be a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem in Scot­land and Hun­gary, Derek con­tin­ues. “Al­though low lev­els of hy­bridi­s­a­tion have been recorded else­where, it’s not con­sid­ered to be a sig­nif­i­cant threat to the species,” he says. “In north­ern Hol­land for ex­am­ple, wild­cats are re­colonis­ing in­ten­sively used land­scapes by mov­ing along hedge sys­tems and into smaller woods. Habi­tats of a much higher qual­ity ex­ist in abun­dance in Eng­land and Wales.”

While there are no de­fin­i­tive an­swers to how things might pan out in Eng­land or Wales, re­search pub­lished last year led by Katha­rina Steyer from Frank­furt Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum un­der­took the largest ge­netic study of wild­cats in Ger­many to date. Over 1,000 wild­cats were sam­pled, and the study found that only 3.5 per cent showed any signs of hy­bridi­s­a­tion, even though they roamed frag­mented land­scapes densely pop­u­lated by peo­ple. Wild­cats showed a pref­er­ence for breed­ing with their own kin.

So if enough wild­cats were re­leased, the chances of a pure-type pop­u­la­tion sur­viv­ing over the long term might not be as slim as it first seems. The IUCN (In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture) guide­lines for species rein­tro­duc­tions dic­tate that the risks – in this case, the pres­ence of feral cats – would have to be as­sessed in suit­able habi­tat, for in­stance by us­ing trail-cam­eras on ‘bait sticks’ mon­i­tored by vol­un­teers. If feral cats were found in low to medium num­bers, they could be trapped, vac­ci­nated and neutered. But if num­bers of feral cats were too high, then other suit­able re­lease sites might have to be iden­ti­fied else­where.

Hav­ing min­imised the risk of hy­bridi­s­a­tion, you would then have the ques­tion of how to get your wild­cats in the first place. The es­ti­mates for pure-type wild­cats in the wild in Scot­land are not good. The ma­jor new Mam­mal So­ci­ety re­port Britain’s Mam­mals 2018 sug­gests there may be only 30 to 430 an­i­mals left, and on the ba­sis of the steep down­ward trend gives the species as ‘Crit­i­cally En­dan­gered’ sta­tus. Clearly, translo­ca­tion of cats from Scot­land would not be a vi­able op­tion.

The most likely source would be wild­cats from the Con­ti­nent. Some au­thor­i­ties be­lieve the wild­cats in Britain to be a unique sub­species, Felis sil­vestris grampia, but there is no ev­i­dence to sup­port this, and in the same

way that red kites rein­tro­duced in Eng­land were sourced from Spain rather than Wales due to the Welsh pop­u­la­tion’s low ge­netic di­ver­sity, the same prin­ci­ple could ap­ply to wild­cats. To en­sure the best pos­si­ble genes, wild­cats from cap­tive pop­u­la­tions in Britain and Europe of an es­tab­lished de­gree of pu­rity would be the most ef­fec­tive.

To pre­pare cap­tive-bred cats for the wild, you need large, quiet en­clo­sures with com­plex en­vi­ron­ments, ac­cess to live prey and no pub­lic view­ing. An ‘off-show’ en­clo­sure of this type has al­ready been built in the grounds of the High­land Wildlife Park near Aviemore, run by the Royal Zoo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety of Scot­land, ready for po­ten­tial wild­cat rein­tro­duc­tions in the High­lands. In Switzer­land, renowned cat con­ser­va­tion­ist Mar­i­anne Hart­mann-Furter also has a wild­cat breed­ing fa­cil­ity with pens ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing kit­tens fully pre­pared for a life in the wild; the pens have many van­tage points, rest­ing ar­eas and com­plex climb­ing and stalk­ing en­vi­ron­ments, and there is a ran­dom feed­ing regime.

Projects of this type re­quire se­ri­ous longterm in­vest­ment. The cur­rent of­fi­cial ef­forts to save wild­cats in Scot­land re­ceived an ini­tial £2.5m for five years. By con­trast, the Ibe­rian lynx breed­ing and re­lease pro­gramme in Por­tu­gal – a use­ful tem­plate for a wild­cat re­lease project – has cost around £30m, mostly in the form of gov­ern­ment money. The suc­cess of this lat­ter project re­veals that, with care­ful plan­ning and brave am­bi­tion, such in­vest­ments can be worth it.

Re­as­sur­ing peo­ple op­posed to such rein­tro­duc­tions can be an equal, if not greater, con­ser­va­tion chal­lenge. Wild­cats may not be as con­tentious as lynx or wolves, but for some peo­ple per­ceived con­flicts ex­ist. The name ‘wild­cat’ con­jures up a fe­ro­cious crea­ture that poses a threat to live­stock. The for­mer en­vi­ron­ment sec­re­tary Liz Truss once sent a tweet that stated: “The beaver is one thing – an ad­mirably in­dus­tri­ous crea­ture… Wild­cats are en­tirely dif­fer­ent. I hope this is not a re­vival of the crazy plan to let lynx loose in Thet­ford For­est.”

Many mem­bers of the pub­lic, es­pe­cially farm­ers and small­hold­ers, share these con­cerns. Trust has to be es­tab­lished within com­mu­ni­ties in re­lease ar­eas be­fore they ac­tu­ally oc­cur.

Rein­tro­duc­ing wild­cats to Eng­land or Wales would there­fore not be straight­for­ward, and other stum­bling blocks are sure to emerge. Yet in a coun­try with such a de­pleted fauna, restor­ing a key ‘lost’ car­ni­vore would be a re­ward­ing goal to strive for. And greater chal­lenges have been over­come: when only four Mau­ri­tius kestrels were left in 1974, con­ser­va­tion­ists deemed ef­forts to save this species a dead-end. Yet zo­ol­o­gist Carl Jones, with the help of fa­mous nat­u­ral­ist Ger­ald Dur­rell, worked against the odds, and the rap­tor’s pop­u­la­tion now num­bers nearly 500.

The ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful bat­tle to res­cue the Mau­ri­tius kestrel is just one of many con­ser­va­tion projects that have been rid­dled with risk, so should an English and Welsh wild­cat rein­tro­duc­tion scheme join them? “If we don’t try now, then when?” says Derek. “If we do noth­ing, then noth­ing will hap­pen.”

Some­times, con­ser­va­tion needs to think big. “An in­formed res­cue at­tempt, util­is­ing the best in­for­ma­tion avail­able from Scot­land and con­ti­nen­tal Europe, has got to be worth a go,” Derek says. “If it works, it will grab the imag­i­na­tions of many, and per­haps it will fire en­thu­si­asm for even greater change.”

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