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11 November, 2014

Six straths identified as important for Scottish wildcats

A new survey has identified six important areas for Scottish wildcats.

The Angus Glens, northern Strathspey, Morvern, Strathavon, Strathbogie (around Huntly) and Strathpeffer are recommended to go forward as priority areas for conservation action.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) commissioned the work on behalf of the partners in the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan. This aims to protect the best remaining wildcat populations.

The report detected examples of cats with many typical wildcat features in each of the locations – with it being likely there are more ‘good’ wildcats in these locations.

But feral domestic cats and hybrids – crosses between wildcats and domestic cats – were also found. And that means more work must be done to tackle hybridisation, the main threat to wildcats.

More than 30 organisations representing land managers, the Scottish Government and various environmental charities back the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan, launched last September.

The new report titled ‘Survey and Scoping of Wildcat Priority Areas’ was produced jointly by researchers at the James Hutton Institute, WildCRU and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS). It details the methods used to select areas of a suitable size for conservation action. The study also examined local support and views on the actions proposed.

Fieldwork used camera traps, scent lures and live-trapping and has provided new insight to the wild-living cats in these areas. A limited sample of cat hair, droppings (or scats) and blood were subject to genetic tests.

The next stage is to reduce risks to wildcats in these six important areas by:

• Co-ordinating an ambitious trap, neuter and release (TNR) programme to neuter all feral and hybrids cats;

• Encouraging cat owners to neuter and vaccinate cats; micro-chipping will also help to make pet cats easily identifiable;

• Working with gamekeepers, farmers and foresters to reduce the risks to wildcats from predator control;

• Monitoring populations to see the benefits of this work.

Jenny Bryce, SNH’s wildlife ecologist, said: ”These priority areas give us real opportunity to halt the decline of the Scottish wildcat and preserve its distinctive identity.

“The Action Plan partners take a pragmatic view – there are good examples of wildcats out there, displaying many of the characteristics of this species. And this is very much the focus of the new Wildcat Action project.

“We have been encouraged by the number and the quality of wildcats that have been observed, given the relatively short duration of the surveys. We think this is indicative of populations persisting more widely.

“But the threats are ever-present and we need to act now to preserve animals that are distinctive as Scottish wildcats. And with the help of people in these communities we aim to do just that.”

Public attitudes surveyed in the report indicate good levels of support for wildcat conservation. Interestingly people did not always recognise the importance of their local area for wildcats.

Local support has also been strengthened by a series of public drop-in sessions in each of the proposed priority areas over the summer. Those attending have been extremely positive and many have volunteered to help with the work when it is underway.

The project will involve local people and sets out to be of lasting benefit to these areas.

Based on indicative genetic tests carried out by the WildGenes laboratory at RZSS, all the wild-living cat samples collected in the last 30 years appear to have some domestic cat genetic markers. Hence the project partners are mindful that the term ‘pure’ wildcat may not be helpful in conservation terms. Dr Rob Ogden, RZSS Head of Science commented:

“We are observing a range of genetic mixes, from feral domestic through to predominantly wildcat. As our DNA tests develop, we are increasingly able to identify individual wildcats with the highest conservation value for the population”.

The survey findings support that there are wild-living cats displaying many of the typical wildcat features in these areas. Although some of the best examples caught on camera were not tested for their DNA, some of the cats tested had a high proportion of wildcat genetic markers. Hence a pragmatic view is that our wildcats remain distinctive and are worthy of protection.

The report does not give an estimate of the number of wildcats ‘out there’ as surveys were limited to nine locations, and will only have captured a proportion of the wildcats present.

The project partners recognise there may be wildcats across the Highlands and that the work in the six priority areas will be complemented by other efforts to protect wildcats across their range.

It is hoped the Wildcat Action project will start in earnest in each of these areas at the start of 2015.

Notes to editors

Report at:

Groups and organisations contributing to the action plan include: Scottish Natural Heritage; Forestry Commission Scotland; Cairngorms National Park Authority; National Museums Scotland; Royal Zoological Society of Scotland; Scottish Gamekeepers Association; Scottish Land and Estates; Cats Protection; Chester Zoo; Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Oxford University; The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies - Edinburgh University; Highland Foundation for Wildlife; Scottish Wildlife Trust; Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; National Trust for Scotland; Aigas Field Centre; British Association for Shooting and Conservation; Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority, John Muir Trust; National Farmers Union Scotland; Highland Council.

The Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris) urgently needs action to save remaining populations in the wild. Following habitat loss and persecution through the 19th century, the wildcat is now restricted in the UK to the Scottish Highlands north of the central belt.

The Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan aims to implement actions focused on improving the conservation status of the wildcat in Scotland. In particular it aims to secure at least five stable populations of Wildcats in the wild. To this end, this project draws together multiple streams of evidence to identify the areas that are likely to be the most suitable for defending and aiding the recovery of existing wildcat populations. We report on field surveys of nine candidate areas using camera traps and associated assessment of pelage characteristics, on genetic analysis of scats and tissue samples collected during these field surveys and from other sources, and on a questionnaire survey of the attitudes of key stakeholders towards wildcat conservation in the study areas. We identify six of these areas that are most suited to be established as priority areas for wildcat conservation.

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