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?
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.”