The plight of the Scottish Wildcat – doomed to imminent extinction by hybridisation – was one we could not ignore.
So together with Stephen Rossiter, Highland Titles Sales Director, I met Steve Piper in Fort William during one of his forays into the north as he began work on what would become the Wildcat Haven project. I am not sure what I expected, but Steve’s operation had looked frankly lightweight. No offices. No staff. Clearly no SNH style expense account (Steve was staying in the cheapest digs in Fort William). We were not sure what to make of Steve. Until we met him. Then it was very clear that he was running fast and lean without government grants and he was getting it done. He knew what he was hoping to achieve, had a team who were doing it, but was short of funds. We agreed to send him some cash and have never regretted getting involved with saving the Scottish wildcat.
In June 2013 Steve contacted us to say that he was taking a back seat and the Scottish Wildcat Association was going to become the Wildcat Trust and that Dr Paul O’Donoghue would be running the show. In the end Paul set up Wildcat Haven as a community interest company rather than a trust, and perhaps because he still had a full time job as a university lecturer at the University of Chester, his wife, Emily took the lead in administering the Company. Paul came to our 2014 gathering in Glencoe House, Glencoe and electrified the audience. We increased our level of funding and became even more keen to see them succeed.
Fast forward to May 2015 and the Highland Titles Gathering at the Isles of Glencoe Hotel, Glencoe. After Paul’s talk, we retired to the bar and Paul explained that he hoped to extend the feral-free area of Wildcat Haven far beyond the area they had been working on – the remote Ardnamurchan peninsula, including Moidart, Morvern and Sunart. Paul had an ambition to create a huge feral-free zone of thousands of square miles, everything north west of the great glen, the ancient water filled rift valley that separates the Highlands from the rest of Scotland. This was an exciting vision and one which would guarantee space for an expanding Scottish wildcat population.
There and then I offered to back Paul’s vision. It was clear that this would require far more funding that Highland Titles could offer. We have our own program of rewilding all planned out and did not want to abort it. But if we could set Wildcat Haven up to sell souvenir plots of land – the model that had worked so well for us – then the vision had a fighting chance. Teach a man to fish…. So Paul and Emily stayed on for a few days whilst we discussed how to do it, culminating in a meeting with our Scottish solicitors, J. & H. Mitchell W.S.in Pitlochry. From the start we felt that the commercial arm should be a new Company so as not to distract from the business of clearing land of feral cats that Wildcat Haven had been so successful in doing. Wildcat Haven Enterprises was going to be a business which would fund the expansion of that work and to add experience my son in law, Douglas agreed to step down from the board of Highland Titles to take on a new role as a director of Wildcat Haven Enterprises along with Paul’s wife Emily who has many years experience with conservation, including the high profile Lynx Trust. Douglas was a sad loss to Highland Titles. Not only had he grown our business since joining, but he has considerable business knowledge, having a business degree as well as time spent as a police officer. Douglas is a man to get the job done.
After a few months of frantic work, we had everything in place. Highland Titles had bought a wood overlooking Loch Loyne in 2014 and had created an 3 Ha deer-proof Haven, which we had called Bumblebee Haven. With advice from the Bumblebee Trust we had asked our friends at nearby Dundreggan, Trees for Life, to plant the tree species that had been recommended as good for bees and which would thrive on the peaty soils. A small part of the reserve (called Mountainview) was already being sold as souvenir plots, but we hoped to establish other niche environments (Havens) to benefit a range of species. Why not wildcats? This was, after all, prime wildcat territory.
With the land gifted to Wildcat Haven Enterprises, they needed a website, which was designed and built in record time by the team at Hotscot in Fort William who by now are used to our frantic and unreasonable requests. Other suppliers were sent designs and shipped folders, booklets, badges etc. All the materials need to create gift packs. Mike Tomkies, the great man of wildcats, was approached to check that he supported the choice of name for the new Haven at Mountainview, Wildernesse Wood (Wildernesse was the name he used in his books to hide the true location of his home on Loch Sheil – Gaskan).
At last, the great day came. At the end of September Wildcat Haven Enterprises launched its vision to the world and they began to take orders. They had a useful amount of coverage in the media, plus a few people who were less than enthusiastic about what had been achieved. But we are just pleased that when the Scottish Wildcat needed help the most, Highland Titles was there willing and able to step up to the plate to help create a renewable source of income for Wildcat Haven.
So, if you want to help the Scottish Wildcat I can recommend buying a plot of land in Wildernesse Wood from Wildcat Haven Enterprises.