I have been alarmed about the declining population of wildcats in Scotland for many years. When I decided I should actually do something positive, I found that the only person who appeared to be actively helping was Steve Piper, the owner of Coffee Films, who had become “radicalised” during the making of a film about wildcats, “Last of the Scottish Wildcats“. He had formed the Scottish charity, The Scottish Wildcat Association, in 2009 and I met up with him a couple of years later, one wet autumn morning in Fort William.
What I found was remarkable. With very little in the way of finance, he had gathered a few volunteers and begun work clearing feral and hybrid wildcats from a 500 square mile peninsula called Ardnamurchan. His strategy was simple. Meet with the local communities to explain the problem and gain their trust and support. He offered the communities free cat and then went on to find cats that were living wild, using a combination of local knowledge, camera traps (low light cameras, automatically triggered by movement) and lure sticks (rough stakes, baited with fish oil that the cats then rub up against, leaving identifying hair samples). Once a likely cat territory was located, volunteers set cage traps which had to be checked daily. Cats were then identified and pure wildcats were inoculated against common feline diseases and released. Other cats were neutered in addition before release. Thus the cat territories were not disturbed, ensuring that other cats were unable to enter their territories, but any successful matings could only be between wildcats.
I immediately pledged to support their work and in 2013 I went further and committed Highland Titles to collect donations directly from our supporters. This soon ensured that Highland Titles were a major financial backer of the Scottish Wildcat Association.
But change was coming to the Scottish Wildcat Association. They had reached out to an enthusiastic conservation biologist working as a lecturer at Chester University, who was working on a DNA test which would help distinguish hybrid cats from wildcats. Dr Paul O’Donoghue, a Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology has a distinguished track record both in field work and bench science, working with a range of endangered species including wildcats. His expertise and passion injected a much needed boost to the work
as the Scottish Wildcat Association morphed into Wildcat Haven in 2014. Highland Titles approved this development and we increased our funding. Paul created the Lynx UK trust and began work on reintroducing the eurasian lynx. This was heady stuff and confirmed our belief in Paul. Like us, he believed that conservation involved a “JFDI” attitude rather than committee meetings, tea and biscuits, SOPs and discussion papers. Here was somebody we could work with.
My son in law, Douglas Wilson decided to leave Highland Titles to join Paul and help fund his work, creating Wildcat Haven Enterprises a year later. With the funding from this new enterprises and a significant grant from Highland Titles, we hoped that Wildcat Haven could begin work on the “Holy Grail”, an area of the Scottish highlands that included the entire land mass north west of the Great Glen – almost 9,000 square miles. This area, cleared of fertile hybrid cats and feral cats could support a huge population of wildcats.
At this point we need to take a moment to look at the other threats that face the dwindling population of genetically pure Scottish wildcats, besides the main one – hybridisation. Firstly there are Scottish gamekeepers, that regard all cats as “vermin”. One of the brief resurgences in wildcat populations was after WW1, when the gamekeepers were busy with vermin that fired back. To quote “the Herald Magazine”, “The demise of the Scottish wildcat can, like many other native predators, be placed firmly at the door of the Scottish shooting estates whose relentless persecution has driven them to the point where they are now rarer than endangered tigers in India (July 14 2012). The second threat, increasing significantly as the population dwindles, is the pressure from zoos and wildlife parks, hungry for kittens to tempt the paying public through their turnstiles. There are already a large number of hybrids in captivity and some may even be pure wildcats. Using the excuse of “a breeding programme” they are ever eager to identify the last few pure wildcats to add to their displays. Between these two agencies, there arises an ambition to certify the wildcat as extinct in the wild. The zoos could then proceed to produce better quality kittens and the gamekeepers could safely and legally resume their cat killing in the name of vermin control. A third threat has come from the replacement of heath and forest, i.e. wildcat territory, with commercial plantations with very little value to wildcats. However under pressure, some cats have taken refuge even here and if identified as utilising particular forestry resources, logging might be impeded. Thus commercial forestry also has a major incentive to see the wildcat removed from the wild and declared extinct.
In 2007, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) included the Scottish Wildcat on a list of 32 species for priority conservation action in the Cairngorms National Park, which would mean that effort and government money would be focused on its conservation. As their partners in this enterprise, the Cairngorms National Park Authority selected, in addition to SNH, Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association (SGA), and Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS). and Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS). Three organisations less likely to help the recovery of the Scottish wildcat as a free-living wild animal would be difficult to imagine. Between them, these three organisations probably represent the greatest existential threat to the native Scottish wildcat.
This is not to say that the project was not without merit. The project sought to do four things:
1. Raising awareness of wildcats and their conservation
2. Neutering domestic cats
3. Working with estates
4. Researching and monitoring wildcats
Using social media, older media and talks, the public were educated about the awful plight of the wildcat. Using the cat welfare charity, “Cats Protection” and volunteers, a program of neutering and vaccination of domestic and feral cats was carried out within the CNP. A practical protocol for feral cat control activities that minimised the risks of harming wildcats was developed and was adopted by some estates. Finally a camera trap program was run to establish the baseline and trend data on wildcat and feral cat presence on the five participating estates.
A cynical observer might conclude that the expensive publicly funded project simply proved what we always suspected – that there were no wildcats in the Cairngorms. As a bonus, the estates could therefore continue to kill cats with impunity, whilst sheltering behind a “protocol” that their gamekeepers could accept – and quietly ignore. Meanwhile, SNH staff could expand their empires, eat more biscuits whilst holding more meetings, attend more conferences, and write more discussion documents. Everybody wins except the Scottish wildcat.
So when the Cairngorms Wildcat Project concluded in 2012, SNH decided to expand the scope of the project, both in terms of the area covered and also the aims, including, most controversially, the establishment of a captive breeding programme. This would ensure that the zoos that were partners in this new project got something. Captive breeding means kittens and kittens means paying zoo visitors.
The new project, Scottish Wildcat Action, expanded the range of partners to include the Scottish Government, Highland Council and several other biscuit munching organisations. Some of the objects were laudable if honestly implemented, but the biggest problem revolved around the aim to “develop a captive breeding programme”.
With any species seriously threatened in the wild, captive breeding can provide an insurance policy against extinction, no one likes seeing wild animals in cages but it is preferable to them disappearing from the world entirely.
Scottish wildcats have been held in various captive collections for decades, and unfortunately that’s where problems stem from; they were taken into captivity and bred long before hybridisation was understood. So probably all the Scottish wildcats currently held in captivity anywhere are hybridised to some extent; there may be no pure Scottish wildcats in captivity. So we have no insurance policy against extinction of the pure/true/original form unless pure wildcats can be identified in the wild, captured and successfully bred. The wildcat could then continue as a species in captivity.
In order to create a captive breeding program it would be essential that sufficient pure wildcats are taken from the wild to prevent inbreeding. With the wild population being barely sufficient to achieve this, the reality would be extinction of the wild population so that the Scottish wildcat would exist only in captivity.
Now this state of affairs would benefit several groups. Gamekeepers would be able to return to killing cats with traps, knowing that they could not be prosecuted for illegally killing a wildcat. The commercial foresters, such as the Forestry Commission Scotland would be ably to extract timber without having to consider the welfare of wildcats and the zoos would have a regular supply of cute wildcat kittens to open the purses of the paying public.
And I am not alone in seeing self interest in the groups who constitute Scottish Wildcat Action. Jonny Hughes, CEO of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, writing in the Scotsman, confirms that “Scottish Wildcat Action is … considering reinforcing remaining populations with wildcats bred in a conservation breeding programme being led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland”. This would surely necessitate capturing the best wildcats and condemning them to a life in a cage.
He also indirectly clarifies why Forestry Commission needs the services of a sycophantic and subservient Scottish Wildcat Action, to justify the destruction of prime wildcat territory – the Scottish forest. Jonny writes “It (Scottish Wildcat Action) has also been improving habitat in places like Clashindarroch Forest, where sensitive forestry operations are creating ideal wildcat habitat with mosaics of open ground – often rich in prey such as field voles – in combination with denser plantation woodland.” This is simply doublespeak for “The Forestry Commission has continued logging Clashindarroch Forest despite knowing that it sustains one of the biggest and best populations of Wildcats still remaining. Doubtless it will soon be mooted by Scottish Wildcat Action that these last few wildcats should be rounded up and condemned to cage breeding “for the good of the species”. then the Gamekeepers could resume their vermin destruction in peace. Everyone happy (except the wildcats) and the SNH biscuit-munchers would be free to resume their empire-building in the knowledge of a job well done. It makes my blood boil!
In 2016 I had a long meeting with Dr Paul O’Donoghue, the Scientific Adviser to Wildcat Haven, and we considered the possibility that SWA would use their government licence to take adult wildcats from their remote glens and cage them in order to beef up their failing captive breeding program. Of the 21 wildcat kittens born at RZSS (Highland Wildlife Park and Edinburgh zoo) over the previous four five had died and fourteen had been neutered because they were such poor hybrids. Even more frightening was the prospect that they would keep the best wildcat kittens, that are sometimes found and handed in. These need to be kept as wild as possible before being released into a hybrid and feral free area such as Ardnamurchan. However we thought it unlikely that any zoo would voluntarily return a perfect specimen to the wild.
So I committed Highland Titles to creating the best possible wildcat rehabilitation facility possible – essentially several acres of mixed woodland enclosed with a very high fence plus other associated holding pens and stores. This was constructed during 2017 and launched in spring 2018.
I have always been ambivalent about zoos and our nature reserve will not become a zoo. However there are zoos and zoos. Borth Wild Animal Kingdom, a small underfunded animal park in mid Wales, for example, is very different to Durrell in Jersey. However any zoo is ultimately a business. You view our animals and pay us for the privilege. Highland Titles is different. Our funding is entirely independent of any need to display animals. This enables us to fund a rehabilitation centre and design it 100% for the benefit of the wildcats. If nobody ever sees them then that’s fine by us!
Animals deserve to be in the wild if at all possible and I have been massively impressed by the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre (AWCC). The AWCC takes in injured and orphaned animals and provides them with spacious enclosures and quality animal care. Most of the animals that arrive at the AWCC become permanent residents because they are unable to be released. The AWCC then provides a permanent high quality home. The Center maintains over 200 acres of spacious habitats for animals to feel at home and display their natural “wild” behavior. Visitors may see brown bears cooling off in the water, a bull moose strutting, wood bison roaming on pastures and more.
These are the ethics I apply to any animals that come my way. Release them if at all possible. If impossible, provide the best home I can. If we were to receive an injured wildcat that could never be released, then the presence of humans would not be a serious matter. But any wildcat that could be released later, such as kittens, must be protected from human presence. A successful transfer to the wild requires that they fear and dislike humans.
We received lots of media interest and happily showed several journalists around, before settling down to wait and see what would turn up. You can imagine our delight when, at the end of June, we had a call from Wildcat Haven to let us know that two wildcat kittens would be taking up residence. A member of the public had seen some kittens playing dangerously close to a road and alerted Wildcat Haven. They alerted staff and volunteers working nearby and after establishing that they had indeed been abandoned, two kittens were caught, checked for health and moved to our Rehabilitation Facility. Initially they were confined to a small area of the main enclosure and provided with ample food and water. They were monitored using camera traps as our first imperative was not to habituate them to humans. The access road to the facility was closed and signs warned all visitors to the reserve that this area was now off limits. Only one or two people approached the facility on any day – to provide food and to replace memory cards on the camera traps.
And that was the start of our first year of operation in the Highland Titles Scottish wildcat rehabilitation centre, which currently holds three wildcat kittens. We will not know for certain that they are all sufficiently pure to release intact because wildcat identification still relies heavily on pelage scoring – which can only be done on an adult cat. Any cats that turn out to be hybrids will be neutered before release. For now, we can only ensure that they see humans as infrequently as possible, that they are vaccinated against common cat diseases and that they are eating as much “wild” food (such as day old chicks and mice) as possible. We want them to be in the best possible condition next Easter when we release them.
If you wish to support the work of Wildcat Haven, please consider donating here.