Wildwood Trust, in collaboration with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Vincent Wildlife Trust, is taking the first steps in a groundbreaking new project to establish the first wild population of the functionally extinct wildcat outside of Scotland in over 200 years.
British wildlife conservation charity, Wildwood Trust, has today (4/20) announced the first steps in a groundbreaking new project to return the functionally extinct wildcat to suitable habitat outside of Scotland, seeing the species return for the first time since the 1800s.
Working in partnership with leading conservation organisations Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Vincent Wildlife Trust, along with experts at the University of Exeter, the project will be the first of its kind outside of Scotland and could herald a new dawn for this iconic British species which is on the verge of total extinction in the wild.
The European wildcat is Britain’s rarest mammal and the only native cat species surviving in Britain. The wild population is thought to be less than 300 individuals, living exclusively in the remote Scottish Highlands, but that population has been declared “functionally extinct” which means that there is no longer a viable population left in the wild.
The species was hunted and persecuted to extinction in England and Wales a century ago, resulting in its disappearance. Loss and fragmentation of habitat and more recently interbreeding with domestic and feral cats, means it has not been able to return. Until now.
“Our goal is to return a viable and self-sustaining wildcat population to its former range. As a leading British wildlife conservation charity, we have developed years of experience and expertise in breeding wildcats in support of the existing Scottish conservation project. We are now excited to be utilising these skills to benefit wildcat recovery more broadly across Britain. This will be a long term commitment for Wildwood requiring increased resources and infrastructure so we are relying on the public’s support to help.” Said Laura Gardner, Director of Conservation at Wildwood Trust.
Reintroduction site and breeding facilities
After announcing this exciting new partnership last year, Wildwood is now taking the first steps in building new wildcat breeding facilities. The project partners, in collaboration with the University of Exeter, are currently undertaking research into the best sites for wildcat reintroduction in Britain. Alongside this, the project partnership is working closely with stakeholders and local people to ensure that the needs and views of local communities are taken fully into account.
Wildwood Trust will be breeding wildcats for the future reintroductions and has launched a fundraising appeal to raise vital funds to build 10 new breeding facilities across its two sites in Kent and Devon. The Trust needs £50,000 to complete the build and is calling on the public to get involved by donating to the project and giving wildcats a brighter future.
Each enclosure will house a breeding pair of cats, whose kittens will later be released into the wild. Wildcat mating usually takes place between January and March with litters of 1-8 kittens born in April-May.
Breeding wildcats is notoriously difficult, as any noise and disturbance can adversely affect the cats. To ensure the survival and safety of the kittens, stress must be kept to a minimum. With this in mind, the new breeding enclosures will be built off-show at Wildwood Trust’s parks, helping to prepare kittens for life in the wild.
The wildcat is one of the few native predators left in Britain and performs important ecosystem functions. A healthy population of wildcats will help to restore the balance in the ecosystem by controlling numbers of prey animals, such as rabbits and rodents, and of predators such as foxes through competition for food. Predators also remove vulnerable prey, such as the old, injured, sick, or very young, leaving more food for the survival and success of healthy prey animals. Also, by controlling the size of prey populations, predators help slow down the spread of disease.
By dove-tailing their respective skills, knowledge and experience, Wildwood Trust, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Vincent Wildlife Trust combine a wealth of expertise in species-recovery programmes, particularly in breeding and species reintroductions.
Wildwood’s mission is the protection, conservation and rewilding of British wildlife. Durrell's ‘Rewild our World’ strategy focuses on recovering wildlife, reviving ecosystems and reconnecting people to nature and Vincent Wildlife Trust has worked for over 40 years to monitor and recover mammal species of conservation concern in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere in Europe.