Scottish wildcat species likely to survive

Scottish Wildcat (Photo: Old Rollei)

Two new reports from Scottish Natural Heritage have yielded positive evidence that the Scottish wildcat is surviving as a distinct species.

Scottish wildcat is one of our most endangered mammals and is at greatest risk from hybridisation with feral cats. The two reports investigated the genetic characteristics of species identity and the geographical distribution of Scottish wildcats in our countryside.

The species report confirms that Scottish wildcats can be distinguished from feral cats by coat markings. The results will be welcomed by land managers and conservationists alike. Doubt was cast over the identity of Scottish wildcat during a court case in 1990 and work has been progressing since to verify its uniqueness

The reports will help to deliver effective conservation action and the management necessary to sustain the species. In particular, clear guidance on how to identify the species will help to target control of feral cats in areas where they pose most risk to survival of the wildcat.

The second report published today is the results of a Scottish wildcat survey between 2006 and 2008. This concluded that wildcats appear to be stable in their historic locations in the north and east of Scotland with localised populations persisting around Ardnamurchan and Morvern. However, their fate elsewhere is less clear.

Welcoming the reports, Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham stressed: “It is our duty to do all in our power to identify and protect the Scottish wildcat whose fate remains uncertain for so many reasons.

“Both of these reports play an important role in conserving one of Scotland most charismatic species for the future.”

The Scottish wildcat has been identified as a priority species for conservation action under the Species Action Framework (SAF) launched in 2007 by Ministers. The SAF sets out a strategic approach to species management in Scotland with 32 species identified as the focus of new management action for five years from 2007. SNH has already committed SAF funding to create Scotland’s first Wildcat Project Officer based in the Cairngorms National Park.

Susan Davies, SNH director of policy and advice, said: “The Scottish Government has identified the survival of the Scottish wildcat as a distinct species and one of our most challenging species conservation objectives under the Species Action Framework. “The evidence base in these two SNH reports will help inform the key decisions we need to take on the most appropriate and potentially successful conservation action for the wildcat’s future as a species.

“The survey results also confirmed the importance of land managers and keepers in understanding its distribution. Comparing the recent survey with work conducted in 1983-87 it is clear that feedback from people working in remote areas is key to gaining a full understanding of its range.”

The early survey was conducted before legal protection for the species (1988) and, consequently, some of the methods used then, for example game bags, are not available now. Moreover, the previous survey extended over four years compared to the current survey of two years, so the feedback (from the most recent survey) was more limited. But regardless of these limitations the results show a clear continuation of the historic distribution of the species. Alex Hogg of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association said: “Gamekeepers manage some of Scotland’s wildest places and have an intimate knowledge of their land
and its wildlife. They’ve also got the keenest eyes and an enthusiasm for the culture and biodiversity of rural Scotland which makes them ideal partners in SNH’s wildcat research projects.

“Our members are eager to continue to play a vital role as trusted observers in this ongoing work.” The comparison of morphological and pelage characteristics against genetic make-up led to the conclusion that the appearance of Scottish wildcat is sufficiently unique to identify individuals genetically distinct from domestic cats.

Previous research concentrated on distinguishing wildcat from feral and domestic cats using either pelage marking or genetic analysis. However, the new research is the first attempt to bring these two approaches together to make a direct link between appearance and genetics.

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