Wildcat kittens born outside captivity in Cairngorms a ‘major milestone’

Endangered Scottish Wildcat

The birth of wildcat kittens in the Cairngorms national park has been hailed as a “major milestone” in efforts to rescue the secretive mammals from extinction in the UK.

These are potentially the first wildcats to be born outside captivity in Scotland for more than five years after 19 wildcats, which had been bred at the Highland wildlife park, near Kingussie, were released last summer in sites across the Cairngorms in a pilot project by the Saving Wildcats partnership, led by RZSS.

It was the first time a predatory mammal had been deliberately reintroduced in the UK after a landmark report in 2019 concluded the Scottish wildcat population was close to being functionally extinct. This was because of population decline caused by loss of native woodland and human persecution, and interbreeding with feral and domestic cats.

While the field team have said they cannot be 100% sure of the parentage of the kittens until they have taken DNA samples, Dr Keri Langridge, the Saving Wildcats field manager, said she was optimistic: “All of them look like wildcat kittens, and the two females overlapped very heavily with one of the released males during breeding season so it is a high probability.”

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The kittens, which were about six weeks old, looked happy and healthy, she said, despite out-of-season snow and heavy rain in the mountains over the past month.

The births were confirmed by camera trap footage after the field team, who also monitor the cats using GPS tracking collars, suspected that at least two of the females had given birth when a change in their movements was observed.

“We didn’t dare to dream that we would have wildcat kittens in the first year of releases,” said Langridge, “and seeing those kittens on the video was the most exciting moment of the project so far.”

Dr Helen Senn, who leads the project at the wildlife park, said: “It’s so exciting to see that the cats are able to make their life in the wild, find a mate and reproduce, when all of those things are not givens at this stage in the project.”

Wildcats may look distinctive with their muscular bodies, flat faces and thick, blunt tails, but their brown, black and buff camouflage stripes and secretive habits make them difficult to monitor.

The team has been able to gather a large amount of data, learning about den sites, habitat and food preference: as well as their staple diet of mice and voles, these cats have been hunting rabbits and even adult hares.

The project has been sharing tracking data with local gamekeepers – many of the release sites traverse managed estates where predator control is a threat – in an attempt to develop ways in which humans and wildcats can coexist. This is especially pertinent given that the initial cohort is “showing more tolerance of people than we would have predicted”, according to Langridge.

With wildcats living in closer proximity to people than expected, and feral cats common around farms, the potential for hybridisation remains high and the team is eager to analyse its fresh data.

“Does that spatial crossover correspond to a high likelihood that they actually breed?” Senn asked. “Or are there some behavioural barriers there that prevent it? Does a wildcat recognise that that’s a domestic cat?”

Senn said she would consider a population of 40 as viable when the project ended in 2026, “but my vision would be that we have wildcats back across much larger parts of the country”.

“We’re only starting out on that journey and there’s a lot of work to be done to reverse what is effectively centuries of decline of a species that was once extremely widespread across most of Scotland.”