Margaret, one of our Scottish wildcats, has moved to the RZSS (Royal Zoological Society of Scotland) Highland Wildlife Park to be a key part of reintroduction efforts in Scotland. But what is a wildcat, why are they so threatened and what are we doing to help?
A Brief History
Our millennia old relationship with cats has resulted in taking them to every country and to every continent. They live amongst our homes, gardens and even in the hallways of 10 Downing Street. Cats have even journeyed to the most hostile continents on earth – Antarctica – as beloved shipmates of 19th and 20th century explorers, but it wasn’t always like this. Domestic dogs have their history as descendants of wolves living alongside hunter-gatherer humans, and the domestic cat has it’s own wild origins too.
It’s thought that the wildcats ‘ancestors’ were attracted to early human settlements around 9000-10000 years ago, though wildcats themselves are much older, splitting from other cat lineages 10-15 million years ago. Since then they’ve enjoyed a position at the mid-tier or even apex of the food chain in ecosystems across the globe.
Wildcats are still out there today in the UK and across Europe, but this might be a surprise for you to hear…
Here in Britain we have our precious Scottish wildcats ‘Felis silvestris silvestris‘, a subspecies of the European wildcat, but as a result of declining wild populations, they’ve become more and more illusive in recent years.
All that remains of Britain’s once great population today is an estimated 0-400 individuals in the wild. Habitat loss and hunting has driven them further North into the Scottish Highlands, but by far the biggest issue is the huge number of feral domestic cats roaming our country.
Wildcats and domestic cats can breed, producing kittens that carry both wildcat and domestic DNA, but the titanic imbalance in population sizes mean there’s far more domestic cat DNA to go around. Only 0-400 remaining wildcats in the UK are matched against more than 1.2 million feral domestic cats (IUCN, 2015).
Scottish wildcats only breed about once per year and every pregnancy that bears mixed DNA rather than “pure” breed wildcat kittens is another step towards the wildcat gene-pool being swallowed by the enormous feral population.
What can be done?
Over the last decade we’ve been supporting wildcat monitoring in Scotland to understand the full scale of the issue. It’s now clear that the population is no longer viable on its own, which is why zoo conservationists have intervened to help prevent the Scottish wildcat from becoming extinct.
“When species come right to the brink of extinction, animals living in zoo conservation breeding programmes become all the more critical for the survival of the species in the wild. We’ve had Scottish wildcats here at the zoo since joining the ‘Saving Wildcats’ project in 2014, and now our work to support the safety net population has a chance to rebuild wild numbers, and help keep the wildcat gene-pool healthy.”
Nick Davis, Deputy Curator of Mammals
“Margaret, our most recent wildcat kitten, was born back in 2018 and spent the first couple of years of her life in our off-show habitat. There she learnt from her parents all the skills that make wildcats such incredible stealth predators, while receiving minimal exposure to humans.
“We have to make sure wildcats aren’t acclimatised to people, so that in the wild they’ll stay well away from human dwellings, and have a lower chance of breeding with domestic cats. Our keepers keep a close eye on our wildcats though, through camera traps placed throughout the habitat, so we’ve been getting information on their behaviour and wellbeing while staying well out of their way.
“Last month we sent Margaret up to our good friends at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), where she’ll join further breeding efforts that hopefully will see her kittens returned to the wild in the coming years, as part of a huge collaborative programme to turn the situation around. We’re so proud to be playing a direct role in one of the UK’s most threatened native mammals, and we’ll continue to do so looking into the years ahead.”
Let’s see how she is getting on in her new home…
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