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Scottish Wildcat Action Plan

An action plan is a detailed technical document that precisely outlines all the steps within a conservation project.

Here you will find the outline of the project, the thinking behind it and some of the discoveries so far.

Background

Wildcat Haven was initially designed by a team of experts in 2008/09.  Since then, it has evolved to incorporate experiences from the fieldwork, emerging science and feedback from the local community. Designed to have the flexibility to evolve over time, the project can ensure we are always delivering the most well informed and practical conservation actions and animal welfare standards.

Aims

Our work includes a wide range of actions and ambitious aims including::

  • Saving the genetically pure Scottish wildcat
  • Removing all feral cats from the region
  • Using humane, neutering-based feral cat controls
  • Establishing buffer zones to prevent feral cats returning to the area
  • Testing for and removing feline diseases from the entire haven
  • Developing a genetic test for wildcat purity
  • Establishing project-owned wildcat reserves across the region
  • Documenting every individual cat in the area
  • Conducting unique research into cat behaviour, genetics and diseases
  • Building wildcat education and awareness worldwide
  • Encouraging reforesting to enhance natural habitat
  • Working alongside local communities and landowners
  • Advising locally owned, low impact, pro-wildcat tourism
  • Creating new jobs in the local community

Most importantly, Wildcat Haven seeks to create and then protect a naturally sustainable population of up to 1,000 pure Scottish wildcats across the West Highlands region of Scotland.

Challenges

We have identified hybridisation as the primary threat to the Scottish wildcat.  Research suggests that feral domestic cats outnumber wildcats by a ratio of at least 500:1, and perhaps by as much as 2500:1* across the Highlands.

This places the feral cat population at approximately 100,000, and the pure wildcat population between 35 and 200.

In a landscape which is home to a large, multi-generational feral cat population that is regularly supplemented by abandoned cats, town strays and farm cats, we surmised that the most practical way to save the wildcat with the limited funds available was by focusing on establishing a small safe haven where all feral cats have been humanely removed, local community support has been sought in ensuring all pet cats are neutered, and it is possible to protect against feral cats migrating back in.

With such a “beachhead” established, the project could then simply expand in bite-size stages.

*(Harris et al 1995, Yamaguchi et al 2004, Scottish Wildcat Association 2012 unpublished)

Overview

We identified a location in Lochaber in the West Highlands: specifically, a peninsula with a small bottleneck landbridge, a resident pure wildcat population and relatively few feral cats.

In order to build support for the project and obtain valuable local knowledge, we engaged with the local community which has proved invaluable in the evolution of our action plan.

Feral cats – being the primary threat to the survival of the wildcat – had to be removed from the region as a priority.  With evidence from across the globe showing that lethal-control projects often failed, we made the decision to trial a non-lethal neutering approach.

We use live trapping methods to humanely capture feral cats in the area, which are subsequently health-checked and neutered by a vet.
haven action plan
This trapping method allows us to see the wildcats up close, helping us to assess the health of the population, precisely map its genetic makeup and accurately define wildcats as hybrid or pure.

By comparing genetic samples from wildcat skins that are up to 150 years old against samples from the living population, and utilising research into genetic identification, we can accurately estimate the number and type of wildcat in the region.

We also use the samples from the living population in our feline disease research to assess the threat and prevalence of various diseases.

To monitor the feline population, we use camera traps and radio collars which tell us how cats behave and utilise the landscape.  This data is also used to enhance the habitat for wildcats, either through reforesting or improving habitats for their prey species.

We work closely with several local tourism operators to develop wildcat-friendly, locally-controlled tourism which benefits both wildcats and the local community.

Location

We identified potential locations in the Highlands based on credible, reported sightings of wildcats to the Scottish Wildcat Association.

Of the potential locations, we decided that the remote peninsula of Ardnamurchan in West Lochaber was an outstanding choice from which to begin.

Arnamurchan is accessed via a small bottleneck landbridge, so if feral cats could be removed it should be relatively  straightforward to keep them out simply by monitoring the bottleneck.  Ardnamurchan has a resident pure wildcat population and relatively few feral cats.  

where is wildcat haven

Ardnamurchan, the remote peninsula identified as an ideal start point for Wildcat Haven

It also benefits from a low human population, a relatively low pet cat population, limited development, few roads and a high level of awareness and concern for nature and conservation amongst the local community.

We were aware that feral cats were present in the region, living as solitary individuals and in feral cat colonies, but they appeared to be at a comparably low density.

Scottish wildcats also appeared at a low density from previous research (Scott et al 1993, unpublished) and initial surveys suggested the 2008 population lived in much the same vast territories as those measured previously.

Forestry is limited in the area but of a high quality: this is a patch of native Ardnamurchan oakwood

The large territory sizes (up to 40 square miles) appeared to be a response to low prey density, particularly rabbits, and limited forest habitat, an observation supported by local reports of unusual wildcat behaviour such as beach-combing for carrion.

Previous research into wildcat habitat and prey requirements have often been conflicting or based on unreliable data sets which featured both wildcats and hybrids.  It is also plausible that behaviour varies regionally according to what is available.

Further research is ongoing to best understand wildcat requirements and any opportunities for habitat enhancement in the area. In the meantime, various re-foresting projects by local landowners and charitable organisations are already active.

This is helping to recreate the natural state of the landscape, which will dramatically improve prospects for the wildcat.

wildcat haven location

Ardnamurchan, Sunart, Morvern and Moidart: the ‘inland islands’ envisioned as a feral-free Scottish Wildcat Haven

 

The neighbouring regions of Sunart, Morvern and Moidart offered a similar geography and natural expansion opportunities.  Once the success of the methodology had been confirmed (and assuming continued support from the landowners and local communities across the region), this would create a combined safe-haven of almost 1,000 square miles.

Community Engagement

Importance

Engagement with the local community is a critical feature of the project. Whilst support for the wildcat (and nature in general) is very strong, conservation projects like Wildcat Haven are understandably treated with caution.  It is vital to prove that our actions such as the live trapping of Scottish wildcats and taking blood samples were genuinely beneficial for the species.

scottish wildcat art

Part of the culture: this wonderfully grumpy wildcat is from a tapestry at Kilchoan Community Centre

Community engagement provides much more than access to land.  It brings a great deal of local knowledge on the local ecosystem which can save years of research.

Local knowledge has led us to many of the local wildcats, hybrids and ferals, and provided insight into the kind of habitats they appeared to frequent, what kind of prey they took and so on.

How we do it

We began by contacting local landowners, community councils, organisations and businesses.  We have spent time in the area getting to know people, explaining our ideas for the project and listening to their responses and thoughts.  As a result, we were subsequently able to update the action plan with the things we learned.

Most of the local population are in favour of helping wildcats, but concerns were raised that the work could disturb them and create greater problems than it solved.

Many individuals raised examples of previous conservation projects by other organisations which were poorly planned, had failed to deliver positive outcomes and had made locals feel dictated to and ignored in the process.

We decided to avoid the traditional lecture-at-the-town-hall approach and looked to engage with people face-to-face; chatting with people we met along the roads or on the hill, getting coffee at the local pubs and cafes, going door-to-door to talk about the project, answering questions and taking on new information and ideas.

It was also important to work closely with animal welfare groups, pet cat owners and feral cat feeders in the area who were concerned about potential use of lethal controls on the feral cats.

We sought to assure these cat-lovers of our non-lethal approach and offered free pet cat neutering, microchipping and health checks from our field vets to help build relationships.

This approach had many benefits as feral cat feeders could very easily trap ferals that knew and trusted them.  Local cat welfare groups had a detailed knowledge of local pet and feral cats which are dotted around the place.  This assisted us in targetting locations for live trapping.

Education

Recently we’ve begun working with local schools to help teach the next generation about the Scottish wildcats they’re growing up alongside.  Here our Chief Scientific Adviser, Dr Paul O’Donoghue, is explaining how we use live traps to get a close up look at the various cats.

scottish wildcat education

We hope the project can become a permanent fixture of the locality, and that it both supports the wildcats and the people that live alongside them.

Word of mouth has gradually spread, helping to build many close partnerships and relationships with the local community.  Several members of the local community have offered their resources and expertise to the project, other have sought advice on running eco-tourism operations in wildcat-friendly ways.

Feral Cats

Background

Feral cats are domestic pet cats that have reverted to a wild state, living in a wild or rural environment. They vary greatly in behaviour, some living solitarily like a Scottish wildcat, others living in colonies often gathered around a food resource.  All are considerably more feisty and suspicious of humans than any town stray, and are difficult to find.

The Problem

In wild and rural environments such as the Highlands, feral cats are a big problem for nature. Constantly supplemented by strays, runaways and abandoned cats and heavily dependent on stealing resources from humans, feral cats experience little natural selection to return to the wildcat form and so will never fit properly into the environment.

Feral cats over-populate: you can find dozens of them in the space you would find a single wildcat, and they predate on a far wider range of species.

The result is that in a territory where a single Scottish wildcat may kill a few hundred rabbits and rats each year; ferals kill thousands instead.

A further perspective is from an animal welfare point of view. Feral cats’ bodies and reproductive behaviours evolved to live in the searing year round heat of the Middle East, not in the damp of Scotland where winter temperatures can plummet towards -20C.

Simple probability suggests that, given the reproductive rate of domestic cats and the apparent stability of the population size, tens of thousands are dying every year in Scotland from starvation and exposure in the winter months.

For the wildcats, the environment and the feral cats themselves, it is highly desirable to keep domestic cats domestic, and find a way to entirely remove the feral cat population from the Highlands.

Attempts to Control

Many attempts have been made over time to control feral cats by lethal means such as shooting, trapping, poisons and hunting dogs. Most of these are illegal in the UK or a risk to the Scottish wildcats as well, and in all but a handful of examples on tiny, remote islands they have always failed to remove feral cats from the environment.

Lethal controls have been practiced in Scotland for centuries with no apparent effect on the feral cat population besides short term and highly localised limiting of a population on farms or shooting estates.

Animal welfare groups suggested that killing a feral cat created a surplus of resources which would then attract other cats to migrate into an area.  This is called the “vacuum effect”.  Killing feral cats may also lead to more kittens successfully maturing to adulthood because there was more food available.

In short, a cull could only work if ALL the cats were killed within a few months, otherwise the population bounces back: a healthy female can produce more than twenty kittens in a year which are fully independent within months.

The Wildcat Haven Method – Trap, Neuter, Return

Our suggested solution was neutering: cats would be live trapped, neutered, then returned to where they were caught. This process ensured there were no sudden resource surpluses, no chaotic migration or vacuum and no kitten booms.

It would still be necessary to neuter all the cats, but since the feral cats would be dying naturally, we had an entire generation in which to do so before significant resource surpluses appeared.

Neutering has often been dismissed by conservationists, but research reveals very few studies into efficacy.  The studies available focused on very small, underfunded, poorly organised efforts in the middle of major cities. There was no evidence for the potential in the remote Highlands run under a scientific methodology.

As such Wildcat Haven was designed to take the trap/neuter/return (TNR) approach, seeking consultation from a range of animal welfare groups.  We researched previous efforts to identify failings, and applied a lot of knowledge gained from researchers experienced in trapping wild species of cat in a variety of environments around the world.

Here we have one of the first feral cats to take the bait: free meat at the back of a secure hidey hole in the winter Highlands was just a bit too much of a temptation.

wildcat haven live trapping

 

A detailed live trapping methodology was drawn up to ensure the safety of any animals trapped, and the trapping also meant that all cats could be health checked by a vet and have blood samples taken for genetics and disease research.

Indeed, the only way to ensure a disease-free Scottish wildcat population was to ensure that the feral cats were also disease-free.

Initial surveys suggested around 75 feral cats in the region, a little more than half of which lived in colonies gathered around crofts or feral cat feeders.

The remainder lived solitarily, scattered across the region. Fortunately, the majority of feral cats appeared to live close to human habitations, removed from the likely habitats frequented by the Scottish wildcats.

This raised our hopes that hybridisation in the area would be minimal.

Live Trapping

Live trapping is difficult.  Wild living cats of any kind are hard to find and trap, and we are looking to find and trap a large number as opposed to a small sample.

A key decision we made was to work in winter months.  Natural prey resources would be at their most scarce, cats would be moving around more to look for food, there would be no dependent kittens and free meat would be a very tempting reward.

Traps are strategically located: whilst an ideal solution would be to sweep traps across the entire environment, this would take a huge amount of resources and time to achieve.

Instead, we take a targeted approach by using

  • eye witness sightings from the local community
  • information from fieldworkers
  • analysis of habitat types
  • camera traps

Traps are set by digging them into the ground where possible, covering them in leaves, moss and branches to make them look more like a natural burrow.

Fieldcraft skills are important to ensure minimal contact is made between the trap and human skin in order to limit human scent being left behind.

scottish wildcat live trap

 

Weather

An issue with the winter season is that it can get extremely cold in the West Highlands – below -20C – and cats could find themselves in these traps for hours at a time waiting for them to be checked by fieldworkers.

Scottish wildcats are well evolved to cope with this, but there is a risk of a feral cat or hybrid dying from exposure.

A methodology was developed to line the traps with hessian and moss, and wrap them in waterproof plastic, creating a wind and waterproof space any cat would be comfortable in for a few hours.

The first to let us know that we had this right were the local pine martens, who took to using the traps as overnight dens with a free meal, wake up call and a bundle of insulating material they could create a snug bed out of.

live trapping surprise

One of our pine marten regulars getting her wake up call: martens are remarkably common in the area, and we’re glad the traps are sufficiently comfortable to be seen as a useful resource by them.

A small number of cats actually became “trap happy” and would be found every morning in one trap or another around their territory.

Any non-target species, such as pine martens, are simply released when they’re found. The only other species besides cats to turn up so far are a couple of curious pet dogs who were quickly returned to their owners.  Foxes appear to be rare in the region.

The Traps

The traps themselves are simple metal cages with a swing door at one end and a floor treadle at the other.

Bait is placed just beyond the treadle so that the cat steps on it when reaching for the food.  This triggers the door to swing shut and lock in place.

A wide number of trap manufacturer products were used with most feral cat traps proving too small and too weak to contain animals like Scottish wildcats and hybrids.

Currently a range of much stronger and larger fox traps are being trialled, and a bespoke design is being developed with manufacturers.

The Catch

When a cat of any kind is found in a trap it is anaesthetised by a qualified vet so that it can be inspected in detail to identify exactly what it is. Blood samples and a general health check can be carried out, ferals and hybrids neutered, all cats are fitted with microchips so that they can be quickly identified if trapped again in future, and a selection of cats can also be fitted with radio collars giving us insight into how they behave.

Feral cats are kept locally at a temporary clinic facility overnight to ensure a good recovery from their neutering operation before being returned to the place where they were trapped (you can find a series of photos showing the whole process in our articles section; here), Scottish wildcats are woken up and released immediately after identification and blood sampling.

Traps are placed according to local information, habitat quality and camera trap data: there is simply too much landscape to trap everywhere all the time, so this targeted approach was taken to limit the resources required and to get the work done in the shortest possible time.

Identifying Scottish Wildcats

Wildcats have lived in Scotland for at least 2 million years, and the current Scottish form has proven itself an adaptable and capable survivor facing some of the most intense and complicated threats of any wild animal.

Sadly, no effort to date has made any beneficial impact on their population which appeared to be in terminal decline.

A first key issue was in identifying the wildcats from hybrids.

Pelage Criteria

A system of scoring coat markings (called pelage criteria) offered a good starting point but had proved to be very subjective in the past.

scottish wildcat hybrid

This Scottish wildcat hybrid is being measured whilst under anaesthetic.  We also inspected in detail for coat patterns.  This cat displays classic hybrid features and loosely fitting pelage criteria which falls short in various ways.

Trapped very early on, this cat has a very skinny tail but the overall pelage score is still better than most of the cats currently in captivity.

Efforts to save the Scottish wildcat ideally needed was something more definitive, such as a genetic test.

Accurately applying pelage criteria or developing genetics requires getting a really close up look at the wildcats still living in the wild.  With substantial live trapping already planned for feral cat neutering, it was a small additional step to trap all the wildcats as well and take a look at the population in a level of detail never before attempted.

We designed wildcat trapping to focus on good identification and gather essential data that couldn’t be gathered any other way: precise measurements, health checks and blood sampling for genetics and disease research.

Ultimately this would build a database of all the Scottish wildcats in the Haven region and a precise understanding of their genetic make-up and health.

Radio Collars

During field trials, our trapping project was expanded to incorporate radio-collaring. The lightweight collars, which would fall off over time meaning cats didn’t need to be re-trapped, record data on territory size, use of different habitats and engagement with other radio collared wildcats, hybrids and ferals.

scottish wildcat hybrid collar

A hybrid waking up in a space-blanket style Blizzard Bag for warmth with radio collar fitted for ongoing monitoring and research

Such data has huge value for understanding what wildcats need in their environment and how they relate to the various other cats.

Licensing

As the Scottish wildcat is a protected species, it was necessary to obtain an operating license from government before starting work. At that time, Wildcat Haven was the only organisation licensed to carry out wildcat trapping and blood sampling.

We have taken the decision not to reapply for a new wildcat licence after the licence expired in late 2015. The reasons for this are

  1.  A licence is only required to live trap wildcats, a practice Wildcat Haven avoid in the interests of animal welfare.  Instead, we prefer to gather genetic data by use of lure sticks, for which no licence is required.
  2. If we were to capture any pure wildcats, then under the terms of the licence, we would have to inform SNH of the location of these cats.  SNH have licensed the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) to take wildcats from the wild and put them into permanent captivity. This is something that Wildcat Haven vehemently oppose.

In short, by working under a licence and trapping wildcats, we would in fact be jeopardising their survival in the wild due to the licensing condition requiring us to inform SNH. We therefore believe it is in the best interests of the wildcats not to relay their location to SNH and hence not to renew our wildcat trapping licence.

A further level of complication was in deciding where to draw the line that defined wildcat from hybrid. No one knows for sure how many pure wildcats are left, meaning that if we set out to neuter everything that wasn’t 100% pure, there would be a risk of leaving too few wildcats to rebuild the population.

Purity

Establishing purity is important. Hybridisation results in Scottish wildcats that behave increasingly like domestics, tending towards over-population and hunting what would otherwise be non-target species, as well as the complications of increased conflict with humans.

The purest possible wildcat is desirable because it will perfectly fit into our native ecology having had 2 million years of evolutionary “field trials” to do so.

We decided that an initial line would be drawn amongst high purity hybrids using pelage criteria, creating a safety population buffer to ensure we didn’t neuter too many cats. Meanwhile, data and samples are gathered to verify the genetics research and give us an overview of how many cats of each type lived in the Haven region.

As our understanding improved, purity standards could be increased, the safety population reduced and eventually a precise genetic line can be drawn, ideally protecting only the pure wildcat, but also accepting that some small level of hybridisation may have to ultimately be accepted.

The purest wildcats in the Haven have proven themselves to be remarkably cautious animal. Mild winters have added to the difficulty; one of the main things tempting cats into traps is the promise of shelter and food in a cold and sparse winter. During a mild winter, pure wildcats can manage just fine without taking the risk.

Numerous landowners, farmers and gamekeepers are working with our field team targeting the last few cats in the region for live trapping, which also appear to be the cats with the greatest potential for purity, their extreme avoidance only adding to the sense of expectation that they could be some of the last true Scottish wildcats roaming these islands.

Identifying wildcats has proven to be an exceptionally complicated issue.

Pelage Criteria

Identifying cats by their coat markings (or pelage criteria) has worked to an extent over a period of 10 years, but is extremely subjective in application.

This has led to a number of misidentifications and misunderstandings amongst the general public and even many conservationists.

Strict pelage criteria contains 3 classes of quality:

  1. colouring
  2. positioning of coat markings
  3. shape of coat markings and bodily form

Each class notes 7 specific features, creating a points scoring system out of 21.

a cat scoring 21 points appears to be a pure Scottish wildcat. A simplified or relaxed definition was also developed using less detail which could more easily be used by land managers in the field, but allowed for some hybridisation as a result.

Misunderstandings began as various pieces of research were attempted utilising variations on the two criteria which allowed for hybridisation to ensure a sufficient sample size, but still referring to everything as “wildcats”.

This spilled out through PR departments and into media coverage often showing the general public heavily hybridised cats labelled as pure Scottish wildcats.

As our project progressed it became clear the wildcat really needed a genetic test that could tell us conclusively and objectively what any given cat was.

Genetic Identification

Genetics is another aspect of science often misunderstood: there are no machines which accept any piece of genetic material and then tell you precisely what it is.

Firstly, you have to tell the machine exactly what a Scottish wildcat looks like genetically.  The machine then compares any future samples against that definition.

This is straightforward if you have lots of pure wildcats around to take samples from and offer to the machine.  However, the captive ‘wildcat’ population is full of hybrids and there were no samples to start from.

Previous efforts had attempted to extrapolate a few genetic markers using hybrid samples.  This was certainly a start point, but this would still define many hybrids as wildcats.  What is really needed is an absolute and complete genetic definition to test against.

Dr Paul O’Donoghue became involved with the Wildcat Haven project initially to do just that, arranging access to a new piece of technology called an SNP chip (often called snip-chip) built specifically for studying feline genetics.

He then worked with Dr Andrew Kitchener, the researcher who first defined pelage criteria, to identify all the pure-pelage wildcat skins in museum collections, reaching back 150 years.

dr paul odonoghue scottish wildcat

The above picture shows Dr Paul O’Donoghue with one of the Scottish wildcat skins from museum archives: this cat is decades old, very large (Paul’s well over 6 foot!), and displays good pelage criteria in summer coat

Taking hair samples from these skins, the most complete genome study ever attempted for any wildcat was carried out using the SNP chip to identify consistent genetic markers between these pure-pelage cats and everything else (specific genes which were always one way in wildcats and another way in domestic cats).

This first phase of research has been completed and based on it we now have a genetic definition of a pure-pelage wildcat: an objective way of measuring a previously subjective methodology. It is this test which is now being rolled out in the Wildcat Haven region utilising live trapping and blood sampling.

Feline Diseases

Another issue that feral cats can bring with them is a much higher prevalence of feline diseases such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukaemia virus (FeLV).

These can be spread through sexually transmitted bodily fluids, through fighting or just in everyday contact. A tendency to overpopulate and live in colonies means that a single cat can rapidly infect several others.

Some feline diseases are treatable, but often require ongoing care and medicines. For cats in the wild, many feline diseases result in a slow death, even if the disease itself doesn’t directly kill the cat, it often hampers a cat’s ability to effectively hunt, defend itself and survive or leads to other infections resulting in the death of the cat.

As highly solitary animals – often separated by vast distances – a Scottish wildcat population may still pick up diseases, but they’re unlikely to go very far and typically only affect one cat. When hybrids and ferals are added to the mix, they create a serious threat of increased transmission across the wildcat population.

As part of our work every trapped cat receives a general health check looking for problems such as feline upper respiratory tract disease (or cat flu), however the real focus is on diseases such as FIV and FeLV.

These are quickly tested for in the field using a SNAP test: a little plastic tool which just requires a drop of blood and then indicates whether the diseases are present; a bit like a pregnancy testing kit.

If the result is negative, the cat then goes through the standard process: being neutered if it is feral, possibly radio collared and ultimately returned to where it was originally trapped.

If the result is positive, then unfortunately veterinary and welfare guidelines recommend that feral cats are euthanized to prevent a slow, unpleasant death and transmission of the disease to other cats.

If a Scottish wildcat is found to be positive for these diseases then we must consult with statutory agencies: the wildcat may be able to stay in the wild or it may be able to add to the captive breeding program; the decision being dependent on the precise situation and disease.

Blood samples from all the cats are sent off for both genetics research and disease research by experts who look for a much wider range of diseases beyond FeLV and FIV to build up a precise picture of feline diseases in the area.  This can be cross referenced with other data such as from radio collaring to begin to understand how they may be transmitted amongst the cat populations.

Besides building up a very detailed database of the prevalence of diseases in Wildcat Haven, researchers also hope that various hypotheses of Scottish wildcats having some natural defences against some feline diseases may open up avenues of research into treatments and cures for other wild species and domestic cats.

We’ve been extremely fortunate in Wildcat Haven to have found almost no trace of feline diseases so far. The first colony of feral cats neutered, about 20 individuals strong, included two FeLV cats who, under veterinary instruction, were euthanised: it was very fortunate that they were new additions to the colony and had not had a chance to pass the disease on to the other cats.

So long as we keep seeing disease free cats across the various populations, Wildcat Haven can remain a very healthy place for a Scottish wildcat to be.

Ongoing Monitoring

As it is unlikely that we will ever see Britain entirely free of feral cats, there will always be some risk that they could return to Wildcat Haven. As the natural environment and Scottish wildcat population recovers after centuries of damage it’s important that we closely monitor the situation, be alert for feral cats re-appearing in the region and also look for further ways we can help.

Buffer Zone

A key design feature of the Haven is creating a feral cat buffer zone, or border control area. Around the neck of the peninsula areas are set up which are heavily live and camera trapped to get us a heads up on any feral cat migration into the region, and to trap and neuter them before they get there.

scottish wildcat territory

Just a corner of a huge, 40 square mile, Scottish wildcat territory in the Haven region; possibly the largest wildcat territory in the world, though there may be many more like this across the West Highlands

Sightings

Sightings are also encouraged from the local community and supplemented by further camera traps dotted around, just in case we have missed any cats for neutering or someone dumps an unwanted pet within the Haven borders.

Neutered cats always have the tip of their left ear removed so it’s quite easy to tell from a sighting whether a cat has already been neutered or not, backed up by a microchip as sometimes injuries to ears can disguise the ear-tip, and we’ve been taking time to get to know the various pet cats around so that they can’t be misidentified as ferals.

Radio Collars

Further monitoring is carried out by fitting various cats with radio collars: we need to understand how they use the environment, which habitats are most useful to them, and how they come to engage with each other.

Being able to track their every move gives us a window into their lives, creating data showing where they spend the most time, at which times of year, how their paths cross with other felines, the human population and how large their territories are.

Territory

Scottish wildcat territories are commonly believed to measure just a few miles square, whilst some older research has pointed to a national average of 8 miles square.  One wildcat in the Haven appears to maintain a territory over 40 square miles: more than a lot of big cats use.

Much of the habitat in which the Scottish wildcat evolved has been wiped from the landscape.  Their behaviour has had to change dramatically to make use of other habitats.  As yet, no one knows any detail of exactly what wildcats do use or how; we have a great deal to learn to be able to help the wildcat recover.

One of the most direct uses of this data is for habitat enhancement: if we know what habitats wildcats get a lot of use from, then we know it’s desirable to have more of it.

Most likely this means reforesting, but it’s important to be sure as there are always a few surprises. Older research suggested wildcats avoided coastlines, whilst Haven wildcats are often spotted beach-combing by locals; just how useful that habitat is compared to a native forest we can’t know without researching it in detail.

Fortunately, there’s a great deal of interest amongst landowners in re-wilding and returning the natural habitat to large portions of the area. Non-native trees have been stripped out of many forests, there are numerous groups pushing forward reforesting projects, and many landowners looking to move away from activities like sheep farming and towards eco-tourism business models, appreciating that increasing forestry will increase population density of all the species and improve wildlife watching.

loss of habitat

Like much of Scotland, Haven has large areas of bare hills and moors: ruggedly beautiful certainly, but of little value to a wildcat, a couple of hundred years ago this would have been completely forested before being clear cut by man.

Ranger

The action plan outlined the need for a full-time Wildcat Haven ranger service: someone needed to be on the ground year round, keeping an eye on how things were going, providing a point of contact for the local community, and able to respond immediately to any sightings of feral cats with targeted trapping.

With every wildcat in the Haven apparently maintaining a very large territory, we perceive a critical need to improve their habitat and build denser prey populations. Done successfully, this sort of work could very easily triple the wildcat population across the Haven region.

Long Term Plans

Over the past 10 years, Wildcat Haven has arguably established itself as the only organisation able to save the Scottish wildcat. By adopting a grass roots approach and carrying out direct action, a haven area of over 1000 sq miles has been created in the Ardnamurchan/Morven area of the western highlands.

In addition, we have opened up a large monitoring site in Aberdeenshire and in 2016/17 we will commence work on a second Haven site, starting to duplicate the work that we have undertaken in Ardnamurchan/Morven.

wildcat haven future plan

They say it can’t be done, but then they also said that about neutering away feral cats: with your help Wildcat Haven can eventually cover the entire West Highlands and protect a sustainable population of Scottish wildcats forever.

Some of the other key goals that remain over the next five years include:

  • Habitat improvement including, restoration of native Caledonian pine forest, creation of den sites and management to increase prey species.
  • Neutering of all feral cats within the reserves assisting both the wildcats and other wildlife.
  • Establish research centres where students and visiting scientists can come to conduct research that will have a direct benefit for the wildcat. Workshops can also be carried out training volunteers and field workers with key skills to help to save the wildcat.
  • Establish education facilities where the public can come and learn about the Scottish wildcat and be inspired to get involved and help the wildcat themselves.
  • Employ local people by offering project officer and ranger posts.

Wildcat Haven deals directly with the hybridisation which is the wildcat’s greatest threat. By neutering feral cats and hybrids a vast contiguous area where wildcats can once again breed with other wildcats has been created.

Building on 7 years of field experience and by establishing strong links with the local communities, Wildcat Haven has created a template for saving the wildcat that given sufficient resources can be applied across the whole of the Western Highlands.

This is a long term vision that may take 20 years to achieve, but the result will be thousands of square miles of habitat where a truly viable population of pure wildcats can be established and protected forever.

All of the current haven activities will continue and be applied to new areas as the project spreads north and Westwards, neutralising the threat of hybridisation as we go. In addition, Wildcat Haven is about to introduce another exciting and crucial element to its activities.

Wildcat Haven plans to create a series of dedicated wildcat reserves across the whole of the western highlands. These new reserves will be carefully selected and purchased in prime wildcat habitats. These will become forever homes for the Scottish wildcat, huge unfenced sanctuaries in which the wildcats can live and breed in peace.

The reserves will become beacons for wildcat conservation and crucial starting points for vast new haven areas. The new wildcat reserves will be purchased through crowdfunding allowing everybody the chance to purchase a piece of land to conserve the wildcat step by step.

Wildcat Haven is already saving the wildcat but adding this new reserve buying element to the project will allow us to realise our dream of creating a haven that covers the whole of the western highlands much quicker.

By selling souvenir plots to our supporters we will raise the funds for a truly comprehensive approach to saving the Scottish wildcat – Scotland’s wildest and most iconic animal.

A key design feature of Wildcat Haven is that it uses the natural geography to provide a modular solution. A first “module” has completed a first stage of neutering ferals and hybrids and removing feline disease, now that work can begin again on a new module, whilst the first moves into a second phase of establishing the long term monitoring and enhancement plans.

Lochaber offers several “inland island” modules, each around 200 square miles with clear geographical bottlenecked border areas which can keep feral cats from returning, and with the momentum the project currently has, the Haven can expand to cover most of that within the next five years, creating a completely safe haven for up to 100 Scottish wildcats.

Beyond that, as you look across the rest of the West Highlands there are many more modules shaped by the lochs and rugged coastline, and taking a step back you may notice that Loch Ness and Loch Lochy form the entire West Highlands into an inland island.

With just three land bridges to the mainland at Inverness, Fort Augustus and Fort William, nature has offered us 7,000 square miles of potential home we can protect for up to 1,000 wildcats: a naturally sustainable population.

scottish wildcat prowling

 

Summary

Saving an isolated species means thinking big. Healthy populations need genetic diversity and space, a place to call home and that’s what Wildcat Haven is really hoping to achieve; taking the nature of the West Highlands back a few hundred years and supporting local communities to thrive amongst it.

The Scottish wildcat has spent decades on the precipice of extinction but a diverse group of people has come together to try and pull it back.

We’ve worked out how it can be done, and in the coming years, working together, we will hopefully succeed and begin the long but wonderful journey back to a healthy population and benefits for every individual life in the West Highlands.

Wildcat Haven is just the beginning of a truly holistic approach to conservation for the Scottish wildcat and all of Scotland’s amazing natural heritage.