Wildcat conservation plans informed by expert collaboration
Five-year project assesses Scottish wildcat population and proposes measures to safeguard the species.
A multi-partner project has established long-term plans to secure the future of the critically endangered wildcat in Scotland.
Their findings suggest that there are too few wildcats for their populations to be sustainable, and the current wild population is no longer viable without reinforcement or reintroduction.
The conservation project, known as Scottish Wildcat Action, found that alongside breeding wildcats in captivity and releasing them for population reinforcement in the wild, measures are needed to improve their natural habitat and reduce risks of disease and road traffic accidents.
Work from the collaborative project, which stems from a European partnership dedicated to Scottish wildcat repopulation, is captured in a suite of nine technical reports and a summary report.
Outcomes are being used to inform the design of a next phase of work, Saving Wildcats, led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), beginning with a series of trial releases of wildcats in Scotland later this year.
Researchers from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies carried out a disease analysis, and developed protocols to trap, neuter, vaccinate and release feral domestic and hybrid cats, in an effort to reduce hybridisation of Scottish wildcats.
These protocols were used to detect, catch, neuter and inoculate 205 feral domestic and hybrid cats, the research team says.
Over the span of the five-year project, partners collaborated to collect over 1 million images in camera-trap surveys of wild-living cats, identifying 365 cats in areas where wildcats had previously been spotted.
However, findings indicate that out of 529 genetic samples collected from wild-living cats, none were considered wildcats.
In preparation for a breeding programme, colleagues from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland carried out genetic screening of all fertile captive wildcats, and have increased the captive wildcat breeding pool by 67 per cent since the project’s conception.
The next phase of work aims to prevent the extinction of wildcats in Scotland by breeding them in captivity and releasing them into the wild.
The team is preparing for the first in a series of trial releases of wildcats in the Cairngorms National Park this summer.
This research was supported by NatureScot and the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
This research from Scottish Wildcat Action will be critical in informing future decisions on how we can revive numbers throughout the country and safeguard the population in the future. Reversing the dramatic losses in nature that we have seen in recent times is one of the defining challenges that our country faces. The Scottish Government remains committed to this fight and is actively working towards protecting and restoring our natural environment.
Scottish Wildcat Action is a fantastic example of how a collaborative, well-resourced long-term conservation project can bring together key stakeholders and the necessary variety of scientific expertise to deliver real impact in the conservation of an iconic species. Understanding the key threats to wildcats, and their genetic and health status, is crucial to their future management, and the long-term survival of the species in Scotland.
Image credit: Lorne Gill/NatureScot
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