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Our #GenerationWildcat is the final hope for the Highland Tiger

Our #GenerationWildcat is the final hope for the Highland Tiger

This week's Guest Blog, which was previously published in Farming Scotland Magazine, has been distributed to partners in Scottish Wildcat Action's land management stakeholder group, of which SACS is a member. It's an interesting read about Scotland's native cat, and an excellent example of how the land managers of today are part of the conservation solution.

By Dr Roo Campbell, Priority Areas Manager for Scottish Wildcat Action

Scotland’s wildcats remain in a perilous position. With potentially fewer than 100 left in the wild, it is undoubtedly the UK’s most endangered mammal.

A potted history of the wildcat

This iconic species once roamed freely throughout the British mainland, but England and Wales saw their last wildcats in the last half of the nineteenth century. Scotland too saw declines and by the early twentieth century, the wildcat hung on by a claw in the remote North West Highlands. It was most likely a combination of habitat loss and persecution that drove the wildcat to the brink of extinction. One of humanity’s great tragedies - the outbreak of the First World War - probably granted the wildcat a reprieve, depopulating the Highlands of able-bodied men, including gamekeepers. Changed economic conditions after the War meant that fewer gamekeepers returned to sporting estates. In the years that followed, the wildcat recovered much of its range in Scotland north of the highland boundary fault

Superficially, all seemed well with the wildcat following this recovery. But under the surface, a crisis was brewing. In the 1980s Dr Nigel Easterbee of the Nature Conservancy Council (the forerunner of Scottish Natural Heritage) showed that hybridisation was becoming a problem, with many cats showing a mixture of wildcat and domestic cat characters. Recent developments in camera-trap technology and genetics have confirmed that hybridisation between wildcats and domestic cats is rife. Camera surveys show that wildcats (or at least, cats that resemble wildcats) are outnumbered by cats that are obviously hybridised by at least 5:1 wherever wildcats are found. Even more worryingly, genetic analyses carried out by Scottish Wildcat Action has, since 2013, not yet found a single wildcat that does not show some level of domestic cat ancestry.

How do you identify a wildcat?

Scottish Wildcat Action uses a ‘pelage score’ system established by Dr Andrew Kitchener at National Museums Scotland and colleagues. This involves looking at seven key characteristics of the cat’s appearance around the nape, shoulders, flanks and, most crucially, the tail. Essentially, a wildcat has thick nape and shoulder stripes, a stripe that runs along the midline of its back without reaching the tail, stripy rather than spotty flanks and a tail that is thick, clearly banded and with a blunt, black tip .

This is a slightly complicated method that requires a really good view of the cat. Consequently, we tell land managers and farmers that if the cat is stripy with a thick, ringed and blunt tail and doesn’t have white feet, they should assume it’s a wildcat.

We don’t believe significant levels of hybridisation occurred following the end of the First World War when wildcats were spreading back out from the North West Highlands. Instead, evidence suggests that crossbreeding with feral domestic cats may only have become common-place after the 1950s. Our suspicion is that the wildcat population suffered continued pressure on its population over that period, forcing the remaining wildcats to breed with domestic cats. This pressure might have come about from a perfect storm of factors, including technological advances in predator control, such as the use of powerful spot-lights, declines in rabbit from myxomatosis outbreaks, and possibly other changes in land-use practices. Whatever the cause, we are now faced with a situation where continuing hybridisation with domestic cats means that the wildcat is disappearing from Scotland.

Alongside this threat, and despite the wildcat receiving legal protection in 1988, a side-effect of hybridisation is that a gamekeeper is more likely to mistake a wildcat for a tabby hybrid cat during predator control. Domestic cats can also transmit diseases to wildcats, further threatening the population.

Scottish Wildcat Action

Scottish Wildcat Action – a multi-partner project was launched in 2015 to address the threats to wildcats, particularly from hybridisation and land management. Working in discrete ‘wildcat priority areas’, the project carried out the UK’s largest ever survey of wild-living cats in an attempt to gauge the extent of hybridisation, as well as establish the number of wildcats left in Scotland. To counter the threat of hybridisation and disease in these areas, we have been following those surveys up with the trap, neuter, vaccinate and return of feral domestic cats and those that we can clearly identify as hybrids.

We are often asked why we do not conduct lethal control of feral and obviously hybridised cats. Neutering can work as a management tool if done with sufficient intensity. Yes, neutered cats can retain territory that would otherwise be taken by a wildcat, but the converse of this is that the gap created by removing a feral or hybrid cat will more likely be filled by another feral or hybrid cat. The ensuing conflict as the newcomer establishes its territory can also increase disease risk, with scratches and bites a major transmission route for feline diseases such as Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (‘cat AIDS’). We also support cat owners to neuter and vaccinate their pet cats, and rely on their voluntary cooperation to achieve this. Lethal control of cats is a very sensitive issue, and can discourage cat owners from engaging with us. Both methods can contribute to a net reduction in the numbers of feral cats, but if landowners are controlling feral cats through lethal methods, we encourage them to reduce the risk of accidentally killing wildcats by using cage traps.

All the survey work we have conducted and the public sightings of wildcats reported through our website tell us that wildcat numbers are now so low that there may not actually be the numbers left in the wild to sustain future populations, such is the seriousness of the hybridisation threat in Scotland. Fortunately, genetic testing and morphological assessments have shown that wildcats held in captivity have not suffered from hybridisation nearly as much. Those wildcats form the nucleus of a Conservation Breeding for Release programme led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.

Despite the problem of hybridisation, there are still some wildcats living wild that have a small proportion of domestic-cat ancestry, which are the very last of our native wildcats. It will be vitally important that they contribute to the future recovery of this iconic species in Scotland.

Wildcats and farming

Scottish Wildcat Action has recently been trapping wildcats for DNA testing, pelage assessment, disease screening and the deployment of GPS collars which record where the wildcats roam. The use of GPS collars is a led by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford and will provide the project with crucial data that will allow us to better target conservation work in the future.

Far from being an exclusive animal of remote glen and moor, these GPS collars deployed in Scotland and elsewhere in Europe have already shown us that wildcats make use of farmlands, including farm buildings. This means that the actions of farmers and crofters can have a genuine impact on their future.

Wildcat conservation can truly start at home. There are risks to wildcats around farmyards, including crossbreeding with farm cats or contracting diseases from them, and secondary poisoning from rodenticides. Ensuring your farm cats are all neutered and vaccinated is a hugely important first step in securing the future of the wildcat, and is something we may be able to help you with if you live in one of our wildcat priority areas. Obeying the CRRU code (www.thinkwildlife.org/cruu-uk) on the use of rodenticides is another simple action that can help not just wildcats, but other wildlife too. We are also continuously updating our sightings database, so please send us details of any wildcats or hybrids you have seen on or around your farm. We haven’t surveyed every corner of Scotland and the more information we can collate on locations of current wildcats and hybrids (data on hybrids give us clues as to where wildcats have existed in the very recent past), the better we will be able to help protect them. We are also collecting road and other casualties for detailed assessments of hybrid status and diseases. Your help in collecting these would be greatly appreciated with a record of date and finding locality.

Outside the farmyard there may be other ways you can help wildcats. Our GPS collaring will help us identify the key features that make farmland ‘wildcat-friendly’. Over the next few issues our column will share with you insights and news on the wildcat and show how you can help conserve them. In the meantime visit scottishwildcataction.org and click on #generationwildcat. We are the last generation that has a chance to save this iconic species.

Posted by: / 22 February 2019 at 14:48 / Comment

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