After 16 wildcats were paired up earlier this year, the European partnership project has welcomed eight kittens in three litters so far and the Saving Wildcats team is hopeful for more births over the coming weeks.
Led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), Saving Wildcats is working with national and international experts to restore Scotland’s critically endangered wildcat population by breeding and releasing them into carefully selected locations in the Cairngorms National Park.
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.
The kittens will join a conservation breeding programme, which it is hoped will save the species from extinction in the wild through future reintroductions.
David Barclay, RZSS cat conservation project officer, said, “Scottish Wildcats are facing severe threats due to cross-breeding with domestic and feral cats, disease transfer and accidental persecution.”
“Wildcat populations have suffered a sharp decline in Scotland in recent decades with studies suggesting there may be as few as 115 Scottish Wildcats left in the wild, making them one of the UK’s most endangered mammals. Our conservation breeding programme and work with partners in Scottish Wildcat Action, the national conservation project, is therefore vital.”
David continued, “Every birth is a potential lifeline and improves the chances of a genetically healthy population that can act as a source for future wildcat release.”
Born in April, the kittens have recently started to emerge from their den and explore their habitat.
Photo Credits: RZSS/Siân Addison
Although some similarities with domestic tabby cats exist, the two are not to be confused. The Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris) is the same species of wildcat found in continental Europe, but it has been separate since the end of the last ice age, around 9,000 years ago.
Males of the species are around 3.77–7.26 kg (8.3–16.0 lb), while females are smaller at 2.35–4.68 kg (5.2–10.3 lb). Scottish Wildcats have heavier skulls than domestic cats. They also have a larger body size. Their coats are distinctive, solid-striped tabby patterning without white feet. The tail is thick with a black, blunt tip and thick black stripes.
RZSS is a key partner in Scottish Wildcat Action, the first national project to save the highly threatened species from extinction. Scottish Wildcat Action brings together more than 20 other organisations in the conservation, scientific and land management communities, supported by Scottish Government and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Learn more at: http://www.scottishwildcataction.org/about-us/#overview
Chester Zoo has released amazing video footage they captured of a rare Scottish Wildcat kitten, bred at the Zoo, emerging from its den for the first time since birth.
The endangered wildcat was born on May 13, and keepers do not yet know its sex.
The arrival of the kitten (the first to ever be born at the Cheshire, UK zoo) has given a big boost to a conservation programme, which is working to bring Britain’s rarest mammal back from the edge of extinction.
Experts believe there could now be fewer than 100 individuals left in the wild, making the Scottish Wildcat, or ‘Highland Tiger’ as it is affectionately known, one of the most endangered populations of cats in the world.
Wildcats once thrived in Britain but were almost hunted to extinction for their fur and to stop them preying on valuable game birds. They are now protected under UK law but remain under huge threat from crossbreeding with feral and domestic cats, habitat loss, and accidental persecution.
Scottish Wildcat mum, Einich:
Photo/Video Credit: Chester Zoo
A coordinated action plan to save the highly threatened animals, named Scottish Wildcat Action, has been devised to protect the species and involves over 20 conservation partners including Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Government, The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and the Forestry Commission Scotland, as well as Chester Zoo’s Act for Wildlife conservation campaign. Conservation breeding in zoos, for their eventual release, has been identified as an important component in the long-term recovery plan for the animals.
Tim Rowlands, Chester Zoo’s Curator of Mammals, said, “The arrival of the new kitten is a major boost to the increasingly important captive population in Britain. It was born in May but has spent the first few months safely tucked up in its den with mum, Einich, and has only recently gained enough confidence to venture out and explore. It won’t be too long until this little kitten grows into a powerful predator.
“Conservation breeding in zoos is a key element in the wider plan to conserve the species in the UK and, drawing on the unique skills, knowledge and knowhow of the carnivore experts working here, we’re breeding Scottish Wildcats to increase the safety net population and hope to release their offspring into the highlands of Scotland in the future.
“In tandem with our breeding programme, we’re also supporting monitoring work in the Scottish highlands and have funded camera traps that are being used to identify areas where wildcat populations are thriving or suffering.
“This project is of national importance and shows what an important role zoos can play in helping to save local species. We’re very much part of efforts to maximise the chances of maintaining a wild population of the stunning Scottish Wildcat for the long term.”
For several months, the kittens have been tucked safely in their dens with their mothers, but they have begun venturing outdoors recently. The playfulness that zoo guests observe between the mothers and their babies is actually an important part of developing the kittens’ survival skills.
Also known as the Highland Tiger, this rare native species is facing the threat of extinction due to hybridization with domestic and feral Cats, habitat loss, and accidental persecution. The species is Critically Endangered in Scotland and is the only wild Cat native to Scotland.
The zoo is partnering with other Scottish conservation organizations to develop an action plan for preserving the species. The captive breeding program managed by the zoo provides an increasingly important safety net as the wild population of this Wildcat continues to decline.
Although some similarities with Domestic Cats exist, the two species are not to be confused. The Scottish Wildcat is an isolated sub-population of the European Wildcat, which is found in continental Europe. Wildcats prefer to live alone but will come together for breeding, normally giving birth to two or three kittens, which the mother will protect fiercely.
With their big, bushy, black-ringed tail and tenacious behavior, Scottish Wildcats play a large role in Scottish lore, and were often used in clan crests.
Meet Merida and Brave, Highland Wildlife Park's 10 week old Scottish Wildcat twins. Born April 8th, the brother and sister pair are quite adventurous, exploring their exhibit, wrestling, and practicing their pounce. The kittens are certainly keeping proud parents, five year old mum Seasaidh and eight year old dad Hamish, busy.
Scottish Wildcats, also known as Highland Tigers, are one of Britain’s rarest animals with as few as 400 thought to be left in the UK, mainly in the Scottish Highlands. These felines at first glance could be mistaken for a feral domestic cat, but have wider heads, distinctive striped coats, and blunt, bushy tails.
Una Richardson, head keeper at the Highland Wildlife Park, said:
“As there are thought to be less than 400 Scottish Wildcats left in the Highlands, these cats are incredibly rare and endangered so this is a huge milestone for this species and the park. The kittens will play a vital role in the conservation of this historic Scottish species along withincreasing visitor awareness of the problems facing this most iconic Scottish animal.”
You might be asking yourself, "Why is ZooBorns posting a story on domestic cats?" Look closely though... These are European Wildcats. Snapped at Germany's Opel Zoo just yesterday by Joachim S Muller, the kittens are fine examples of this species native to Western, Central, and Eastern Europe. Studies suggest that all domestic cats are descended from the Wildcat, of which the European Wildcat is a subspecies.