I have supported the Scottish Wildcat Association charity and Wildcat Haven for many years. They have given us hope that the Scottish Wildcat can be saved as a wild animal.
Then, almost 18 months ago, I announced the launch of a rival organisation that claimed to have the best interests of the Scottish Wildcat at heart. It was launched with huge funding and great razzmatazz. The main problem was that it was hard to see how an organisation that included such disparate interests as driven grouse shooting, the display for profit of wild animals and the felling of the very forests that the wildcat requires for its home and larder could serve the interests of the wildcat. Yes, they talk the talk, but could they walk the walk? Were they going to help the wildcat? Or did they plan to exterminate it in the wild and restrict it to a zoo animal.
The gamekeepers and the zoos have now been exposed as the nasty organisations that we always imagined them to be. Now it is Forestry Commission Scotland and its forest destroying agenda that is in the frame. Friend or foe of the Scottish Wildcat? The jury is out, but it does not look good for them.
It started with the discovery of an unexpected population of Scottish Wildcats in the massive forest of Clashindarroch.
Wildcat Haven has identified at least 13 wildcats living there, including the large wildcat which has been nicknamed the Beast. In the last few weeks, Wildcat Haven has highlighted the threat to this population of wildcats from the Felling Operations of Forest Enterprise Scotland who manage the forest for Forestry Commission Scotland – a partner in the Scottish Wildcat Action.
The Clashindarroch Forest was planted only recently, with the first trees being put in the ground before WWII. It covers a range of heights and soil types. Not all of the forest is suitable for tree cover. It is a mosaic including large areas of open ground, often rich in food for Wildcats, such as voles. This is normal for most forests and although there are large plantations within the forest which offer cover, there are also large areas of open ground which support large populations of prey species.
The only threat to the wildcat is the disturbance caused by large scale forestry operations. This disturbance is precisely what Scottish Wildcat Action is recommending. But then including Forestry Commission Scotland in a wildcat organisation is a bit like including an SS Panzer Division in the Allied line of battle. Unlike Scottish Wildcat Action, Wildcat Haven serves no commercial masters worried about profits. Wildcat Haven Is fighting to save this last small population of Aberdeenshire wildcats.
The wildcats have survived since the last ice age in this area despite or perhaps because of the planting. However is is improbable that they will be able to co-exist with large scale mechanised timber harvesting.
Logging is taking place NOW, in the middle of kitten season, disturbing wildcat mothers, which could make them abandon or even eat their young.
The logging will tear the wildcat population apart, and threaten many other rare animals that live in the forest alongside them.
Finally, here’s the letter written by two Wildcat experts to Nicola Sturgeon, The First Minister of Scotland:
Dear Mrs Sturgeon,
We are writing to you as originators of the petition to protect Clashindarroch Forest in Aberdeenshire, which has over 205,000 signatures so far (www.change.org/SaveTheWildcats).
At least 13 high-purity Scottish wildcats live in Clashindarroch, the largest single population recorded anywhere; possibly a third of the national population and certainly critical to it.
As a commercial forest it is subject to rotational felling by Forest Enterprise Scotland, which raises a significant risk of disturbing wildcats and destroying their dens. Two “significant” wind farms are also in planning between FES, Vattenfall and Fred Olsen Renewables.
We are sure that your advisors at Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry Commission Scotland have told you that everything is as it should be in Clashindarroch, but we can demonstrate that it isn’t. The current situation is likely to place you as the First Minister in charge when the wildcat went extinct.
As required, FES do appear to be carrying out pre-felling surveys to check for wildcat presence. However, it has been proven that those surveys have failed to identify wildcat territories which were subsequently felled; “reckless” disturbance and destruction in law.
In one case FES were shown evidence of a wildcat on a site already being clear-felled. They briefly ceased operations accepting the cat was present, then continued clear-felling anyway. This virtually guaranteed the destruction of dens and resting places, as well as the disturbance and displacement of that cat; “deliberate” disturbance and destruction in law.
An FES species ecologist commented that “cats can move”, even though the law expressly forbids this happening. He is also the only ecologist we are aware of with the opinion that forcing the movement of highly territorial, legally protected, and critically endangered animals is no big deal.
Further justification for felling has been offered by Scottish Wildcat Action who claim they have peer-reviewed evidence that wildcats benefit from 90 hectares of their territory being clear-felled. This evidence relies on a dataset of domestic tabby cats and eye witness sightings reaching back to the 1800s; random members of the public thinking they might have seen a wildcat somewhere.
They also cite a study of German wildcats living in a hurricane deforested landscape, and two studies of Spanish wildcats living in unforested scrub landscapes. That these cats did not use forest very often (of course they had none to use), is provided as evidence that Scottish wildcats benefit from industrial clear-felling creating a “mosaic” of deforested areas within a forest.
These are gross misrepresentations of science. There is absolutely no evidence that Scottish wildcats benefit in any way from clear-felling, and a considerable body of evidence and legal protections making clear that it is extremely detrimental to their survival.
Then the two wind farms. Deatils are unknown of the Fred Olsen plan but FES themselves call it “significant”, and requiring “significant clear-felling”.
Plans are available for a Vattenfall project to extend the wind farm on the edge of Clashindarroch. It will cut the forest and wildcat population in two and clear fell up to a quarter of it. FES were keen to keep this “under the radar” according to their internal emails, expecting wildcats would be an issue; which we find outstandingly poor behaviour for a public agency, managing a public forest, talking about a legally protected and critically endangered species.
Vattenfall 2 will immediately make numerous wildcats homeless and cause the collapse of the Clashindarroch population. Whatever the size, Fred Olsen’s Longbank project will ensure the collapse is a rapid process.
The loss of this population will mean extinction; there is no evidence to show that there are more than 35 wildcats left. SNH have dropped their own population estimates from 400 to 100 over the same period that they have spent £2m of public and Lottery money allegedly saving the wildcat.
We, and over 205,000 other people, believe the case is clear; the wildcat is not safe so long as Clashindarroch can be commercially exploited. Scotland has many windy hills and many commercial forests, but this is the only one with a resident population of wildcats.
We understand there’s a great deal of process and investigation that has to take place to fully inform MSPs of the situation in Clashindarroch, as well as a Parliamentary close imminent, but Scotland’s rarest animal is at risk right now, purely because failing FES surveys tick a box in a forestry stewardship form.
We feel the only sensible choice is to put a moratorium on all forest exploitation in Clashindarroch Forest until Parliament is next in session and able to deliver a fully informed decision on whether it can be protected.
Please, meet with us and let us show you the evidence for what is at stake, and how the wildcat population is being brushed aside by both Forestry Commission and Scottish Natural Heritage in their action planning, procedures, PR activities and internal communications.
Dr Paul O’Donoghue and Steve Piper
On behalf of Wildcat Haven