Endangered Scottish wildcats bred in captivity will take first steps into the wild to save species
Scottish wildcats bred in captivity are to be released into the wild for the first time in a bid to save the critically endangered species, it has been announced.
NatureScot, a government agency, has approved a licence application for the animals to be released in “carefully selected” areas of the Cairngorms National Park in the Highlands in summer 2023.
The decision marks the first conservation translocation of wildcats in Britain, with the first in a series of trial releases being planned to help restore their numbers in Scotland.
The Saving Wildcats partnership, which applied for the licence in September 2022, plans to release about 20 of the animals annually, starting in June 2023.
They will be moved from the project's breeding centre at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland's (RZSS) Highland Wildlife Park near Aviemore to the Cairngorms, which is the UK's largest national park.
Viable wild population has vanished
The Scottish wildcat is the only wild member of the cat family to survive in Britain. Hybridisation with feral and domestic cats poses the greatest threat to the species.
A report published in 2019 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature concluded that there was no longer a viable population living naturally in Scotland.
It was announced in February that wildcats are to be released in the English countryside for the first time in 500 years as part of another pioneering conservation project.
Between 40 and 60 European wildcats will be set free in rural parts of Devon and Cornwall in 2024 after funding was secured for the programme.
Before granting the licence for the Cairngorms project, NatureScot weighed up a range of issues including animal welfare, site suitability and potential impacts on neighbouring land.
They assessed the proposed release site to be suitable but admitted there were “risks and challenges associated with the translocation of a predator species to the area, and success will rely on support from local communities”.
Dr Katherine Leys, NatureScot's head of biodiversity, said: “Habitat loss, persecution and hybridisation with domestic cats has brought the Scottish wildcat population to the brink of extinction.
“The Saving Wildcats partnership has been a lifeline for the species and our decision to grant a translocation licence to allow wildcats to be released in the Highlands of Scotland marks a crucial point in the long journey towards conserving this iconic species.”
She added: “Once there, the wildcats will face further challenges, so it’s crucial the project continues to work with local communities, farmers, land-owners and cat owners to ensure wildcats are given the best chance to survive and thrive.”
Monitoring with GPS collars
Dr Helen Senn, the Saving Wildcats project lead and RZSS head of conservation, said: “When the time comes, we will be able to move wildcats under licence from pre-release enclosures at Highland Wildlife Park to carefully selected areas in the Cairngorms Connect landscape which provide a suitable mix of habitats and potential prey for the species.
“After release, the wildcats will be monitored using GPS collars as they face the many challenges of life in the wild.”
Saving Wildcats is one of the largest species conservation projects in Britain and it is supported by RZSS, NatureScot, Forestry and Land Scotland and the Cairngorms National Park Authority, together with European partners Nordens Ark and Junta de Andalucia.
Cairngorms Connect is a partnership of neighbouring land managers Wildland Limited, Forestry and Land Scotland, RSPB Scotland and NatureScot.
They are working together on a 200-year vision to enhance habitat, species and ecological process across 231 square miles of the national park.
Wildland is owned by billionaire fashion tycoon Anders Holch Povlsen, Scotland’s largest landowner, who is keen to re-wild his 221,000 acres of estates.
Thomas MacDonell, Wildland's director of conservation, said: “We’re delighted to be a part of restoring this iconic Scottish species.”