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The Scottish Wildcat Is Disappearing. Can It Be Saved?

Perhaps only a couple dozen "Highlands tigers" are left in the wild. Now, the race is on to prevent their extinction.

Britain used to be home to a wide variety of wildlife, including large creatures such as lynx, wolves, bears, and wildcats. Of these, only the wildcat is left, and it’s in deep trouble.

To the untrained eye, the Scottish wildcat looks quite like a cat you might keep as a pet. Perhaps ironically, however, its domestic cousin is one of the biggest threats to the wildcat’s existence—and few mammals seem to dislike humans more.

Though wildcats avoid humans, large numbers of the animal have interbred with domestic cats, creating hybrids that cannot be truly classified as wildcats. Real Scottish wildcats are larger, up to twice the size of domestics, with thicker coats, stubby tails, and a distinctive striped coat.

The orphaned sister and brother pair will be released to the wild when they’re old enough to survive on their own.

And now the Scottish wildcat, a type of European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) found in the Scottish Highlands, is in distinct danger of going extinct. Once found widely throughout Britain, it was hunted and persecuted, and has survived only in remote areas of the Highlands. No one knows exactly how many are left, but the wild population is thought to be somewhere between a couple dozen and a couple hundred—with most agreeing that the smaller estimate is the more realistic. Some put the exact number around 35.

Because of hybridisation, one cannot merely do a quick count—oftentimes an in-depth analysis of an animal’s coat and genetics is required to determine its proportion of wildcat.

These two Scottish wildcat kittens were rescued after their mother was killed and will be released to the wild once they are able to survive on their own.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

Saving the Scots

To save the Highlands tiger, as its sometimes called, several organisations have started large-scale programs to neuter and vaccinate domestic cats in areas where the wildcats roam, to prevent hybridisation and the spread of disease.

One enterprising group, known as Wildcat Haven, has started a neutering program, primarily on the Ardnamurchan peninsula in the West Highlands. In this area—and in another spot in Scotland’s far north—it has neutered nearly 300 domestic and feral cats in the last three to four years, says Paul O'Donoghue, the organisation’s chief scientific advisor. This effort has created a 3237-square-kilometre area where resident wildcats face little threat of hybridisation, O'Donoghue adds.

The group is also working to end logging in the Clashindarroch Forest, where they have identified a significant population of the animals, and have started a petition that more than 350,000 people have signed.

An unrelated coalition of zoos, universities, and conservation groups known as Scottish Wildcat Action, has programs in other areas of the Highlands to trap, vaccinate, neuter, and re-release domestic and hybrid cats, says Roo Campbell, a biologist and project manager with Scottish Natural Heritage.

WILDCATS YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF

A Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) sits primly on the shore of Loon Lake in Ontario, Canada in 1906. These 11- to 37-pound (5 to 17 kilogram) cats live in boreal forests across Canada and down into the northern United States.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GEORGE SHIRAS, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Since 2016, the coalition has neutered 200 cats in several areas, Campbell says. However, perhaps as many as one-half of those animals were hybrids, which take significantly more effort to catch than farm cats, since they are warier of humans and more wild, Campbell explains. The team also works to educate cat owners about the importance of neutering and spaying their cats.

“Hybrids present a particular problem because they live alongside wildcats, competing for territories and mates”, he says, allowing them to act as “a ‘hybrid-bridge’ between wildcats and domestic cats. Breaking this bridge is therefore one of the ways [to] halt further hybridisation, and it is therefore a priority”.

How to Proceed?

Several zoos have also initiated captive breeding programs, with a total of about 80 wildcats in captivity. The genetic profiles of these animals are better understood than those in the wild, and researchers are working to breed enough suitable wildcats for eventual wild release, says Andrew Kitchener, the principal curator of vertebrates at National Museums Scotland.

But it’s unclear when such a release would take place—and captive release presents many problems. For example, taking animals out of nature impairs many of their instinctual behaviours and their ability to cope with threats like roads or humans.

A study cited by the International Union for Conservation of Nature tracked 129 wild-caught and captive-bred European wildcats reintroduced to three German forests in the 1980s. The researchers found that although some of the cats in all three areas began mating and reproducing, a large percentage died in the first few weeks after being struck by cars, and only 20 to 30 percent survived.

The Scottish wildcat may at first glance look like a cat you might keep as a pet, but they can grow up to twice the size, and are known for their striped coat and fierce attitude.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

And creatures that do make it would also be faced with the widespread threat of hybridisation.

There are bitter disagreements about the best way to proceed. Wildcat Haven maintains that neutering and vaccination is the only way to save the Scottish wildcat—and that captive breeding and release is not feasible or sound, as it would cause, among other things, an unacceptable level of mortality.

Steve Piper, a conservationist and filmmaker who made a film about the animal, also says that the Scottish Wildcat Action—which is largely funded by the government—has not worked urgently enough to save the wildcat and has been inefficient with its funds. Wildcat Haven, which Piper founded, has neutered more animals in the last couple years than the government has, but only with a tiny fraction of the budget, he adds.

Wildcat Territory

The groups do agree that better use of land is vital. Much of Scotland is farmed, deforested, or populated with sheep or deer, which necessitates keeping the land without substantial tree cover or underbrush, where the felines can hide and make dens. Moreover, gamekeepers often kill predators on their property. Scottish Wildcat Action is currently working with land managers in the five priority areas to address these concerns, for example handing out wildcat identification cards to gamekeepers, Campbell says. The group, however, has been criticised for allowing cats to be killed.

Peter Smith, director of an animal sanctuary known as Wildwood Trust, argues that wildcats will not have a secure future until more land returns to forest, and Scotland needs to increase the portion of forested land. This could be accomplished by, among other things, changing how subsidies are paid to farmers. “We need to get more land back to a proper condition”, Smith says.

Photographer Joel Sartore, with the National Geographic Photo Ark, a project to document and raise awareness about the perils faced by endangered species, recently had a rare opportunity to photograph two wildcat kittens. These animals, whose mother had been killed, were found on the verge of death in a ditch. Members of Wildcat Haven rescued the kittens, and nursed them back to health in an enclosure, over an acre in size, built specifically for wildcats at the Highland Titles Nature Reserve.

Also known as the Highlands tiger, the Scottish wildcat was once widely persecuted and hunted, and perhaps as few as a couple dozen remain in the wild.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

Although the kittens’ coats cannot be fully assessed for wildcat heritage before the age of six months, O'Donoghue says, they already meet the government threshold. “We have no doubt whatsoever, both by the way they look and the way they behave, that they’re the real deal”, he says.

At the reserve, the kittens receive very little human contact, and Sartore filmed the kittens through a special tent so they didn’t even physically see any people. Come spring, the organisation plans to release the animals in the West Highlands.

Future Work

Meanwhile, research on the wildcats continues. Scientists with the International Union for Conservation of Nature are in the midst of forming the next phase of a plan to save the Highlands tiger—including options such as introducing European wildcats from the continent.

That’s generally seen as a last resort, however; although the Scottish wildcat is not currently regarded as a separate subspecies from European wildcats, it does have some unique behaviours and characteristics, such as a thicker coat than that of its continental cousins, and ability to survive in land that isn’t exclusively forested.

While some of the details remain unclear, all agree that urgent work is required—with a focus on neutering pets and farm felines—to save this most undomesticated of cats.

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