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Urgent action planned to save the wildcat

Photo: Peter G Trimming

A range of national actions to save the Scottish wildcat look set to be agreed over the next six months. The move follows the first-ever meeting of a diverse group of land management, research and conservation organisations at Scottish Natural Heritage’s (SNH) Battleby conference centre, near Perth, on Friday 14 September.

The Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Group includes representatives from SNH (chair); Forestry Commission Scotland; Cairngorms National Park Authority; Scottish Wildcat Association; Royal Zoological Society of Scotland; Scottish Gamekeepers Association; National Museum of Scotland; University of Oxford, Wildlife Conservation Research Unit; Highland Foundation for Wildlife, and the National Trust for Scotland.

The main threat to wildcats is hybridisation with feral domestic cats which raises many challenges in correctly identifying wildcats from often fleeting sightings. The first action agreed by the group was an immediate targeted survey to identify the best surviving populations of wildcats.

Survey work will be coordinated with the intention of identifying key regions to focus research and conservation actions within.

Other possibilities discussed included innovative approaches such as captive breeding and translocation of cats in the wild. However, the current emphasis is to obtain more up to date information on wildcat numbers and distribution which in turn will be used to prioritise action on the ground.

The group aims to have a comprehensive action plan underway by next spring forming a Scotland-wide approach to wildcat conservation overseen by SNH.

Ron Macdonald, SNH’s head of policy and advice, who chaired the meeting, said: “I am delighted that the meeting was extremely positive with all present committed to working together for the benefit of wildcat conservation. A range of options was discussed and we are open to suggestions of what actions can make a real difference for this species.

“What is important is that we are committed to urgently pressing on as a focused group to save this species. We all agree that it is in a parlous state and by working together we can help reverse the decline of the Scottish wildcat.”

Steve Piper of the Scottish Wildcat Association commented: “The meeting was a strong step in the right direction for the wildcat; I think everyone appreciated the urgency and need for very diverse groups to coordinate exceptionally well and give the wildcat a fighting chance – but we must keep up the momentum.”

Will Boyd-Wallis of Cairngorms National Park Authority said: “We are very pleased that continued action to save the wildcat is being led by SNH with such a diverse, experienced and strong minded group. One of the strengths of the Cairngorms Wildcat project was the combination of voluntary effort by land managers, gamekeepers and by Cats Protection alongside rigorous camera trap research. We are determined to assist the action group in encouraging this to continue in the Cairngorms National Park and elsewhere.”

And Lindsay Mackinlay, nature conservation adviser, National Trust for Scotland, said: “The National Trust for Scotland has been extremely concerned about the increasing decline of the wildcat in Scotland for several years. The public quite rightly show support for saving the tiger or the snow leopard in other countries yet not enough attention has been given to the fate of our very own top predator, the wildcat, an animal synonymous with Scotland’s wild nature. We are therefore delighted that this group has been established to focus all our efforts in trying to save this magnificent animal.

“Much excellent work has been done already by a few organisations and individuals to try to save the wildcat. The time has come for all of us to step up to the plate as this is the only way we will save this species.”

Kenny Kortland, FCS species ecologist, said: “Wildcats use all kinds of forest habitat, from semi-natural woods to productive plantations, so Forestry Commission Scotland recognises the responsibility we have for this species. We are working with various partners to locate wildcat populations on the national forest estate and we will use this information to plan work in our forests to ensure we do not disturb wildcats or damage their dens. FCS are also supporting the creation of thousands of hectares of woodland every year across Scotland which should benefit wildcats for the long term.”

George Macdonald of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) said: “Following on from our involvement with the Cairngorms Wildcat Project, we feel it is enormously important the efforts to preserve the wildcat continue at a critical time and we are happy to assist this process again.

“In particular, gamekeepers have managed large areas Scotland’s countryside for many decades and we will be appealing to our members to help us with information about historic wildcat strongholds as well as up to date sightings in the wild.

“As keepers cover the ground at all hours they often see things others don’t, and we can collate the information and feed this into the action group’s data, helping to identify priority conservation actions for wildcats.”

Iain Valentine, director of research and conservation for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, said: “We are keen to extend our commitment to wildcat conservation by using the various specialised skills sets that we have at RZSS, such as captive husbandry, breeding expertise and an on-site genetics team, and play a key role within the SNH-coordinated Wildcat Conservation Action Group. All of the parties represented at the meeting are unanimous in the opinion that time is of the essence and this joint approach to saving this Scottish icon helps assure a successful outcome.”

And Professor David Macdonald, director of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) said: “Wildcats are a powerful symbol of Scottish wilderness and protecting them is a top priority. Our team has been working to this end for more than a decade, and fully agree that surveying their numbers and whereabouts is the crucial foundation for action.”

Individual members of the Conservation Action Group will work together in task groups focused on key aspects of wildcat conservation such as research, taxonomy, genetics and captive breeding, developing proposals alongside other experts and presenting these for approval by the core action group.

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