Extinction by stealth: how long can the Scottish wildcat survive?

Extinction by stealth: how long can the Scottish wildcat survive?

Are these the final few days of the Scottish wildcat, currently numbering perhaps as few as 35 scattered beasts? That is the fear of some supporters of Scotland’s most vivid species, and it is leading to an almighty row over a creature that has graced the Highlands for around 10,000 years. The argument relates to a deceptively simple question: when is a wildcat not a wildcat?

Scottish Wildcat 010
The Scottish wildcat. There may be just 35 pure-bred animals in the wild. Photograph: David Tipling/Alamy

The wildcat’s imminent extinction may have been camouflaged from our consciousness by the existence of a counterfeit cat – a feline facsimile that looks like a wildcat but whose genealogy is far from pure. Staring implacably from the midst of rock and heather it will do for the postcards and tea-towels. And if it looks like a wildcat, then why should the rest of us worry about its lineage?

Last week the Scottish government and its leading environmental agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, in response to insistent calls for action to be taken to protect this endangered species, announced a £2m, six-year strategic plan to reverse the decline in numbers by reducing cross-breeding with domestic and feral cats and curbing exposure to feline diseases.

No stone, it seems, will be left unturned in seeking to preserve this beastie and all the usual key words were present and correct: “targeted”, “outcomes” and “viable”. “A conservation breeding programme will be set up to reinforce wild populations in the future,” SNH insisted, “and scientists will also carry out further research to improve understanding of wildcat ecology and genetics.” But it’s the presence also of phrases such as “distinct groups” and “relaxed definitions” that fuel the suspicion that saving the pure, un-hybridised Scottish wildcat may not be on the government agenda.

The government masterplan is as fake as the DNA of the hybrids masquerading as pure-bloods, said Steve Piper, founder of the Scottish Wildcat Association and the country’s foremost authority on the preservation of the species.

In short, anything that looks roughly two-thirds wildcat will be classified as a wildcat, so in the time it takes to say “re-contextualised” the population has ballooned from 35 individuals to thousands; quite a few pet cat owners worldwide will be waking up tomorrow morning to find they have a government-approved Scottish wildcat purring at the end of the bed.

According to Piper, the government and Scottish Natural Heritage studiously avoided almost all mention of the pure wildcat. So is the government and its main species conservation body signalling, by stealth, the extinction of the unalloyed, pure Scottish wildcat?

“I don’t think that’s overstating it,” said Piper. “They are certainly looking in all the wrong places. If it diverted just a few hundred thousand of its £2m or so to efforts currently being made in the Ardnamurchan peninsula, where the Scottish Wildcat Association has been working to breed the last cats in isolation, the final few dozen might yet have a future. It seems, though, that they are simply not prepared to take the risk of spending that money without the guarantee of success.”

In effect, the government stands accused of lowering the bar so that it can include an ornamental wildcat which will remain capable of bewitching the tourists.

The uncertain fate of an emblematic creature is in stark contrast to the upturn in fortunes of some of Europe’s other famous animals. Important research conducted by a conservation group that includes the Zoological Society of London points to startling increases in numbers of species such as bears, wolves, lynx, eagles and vultures. Targeted protection against hunting and poaching, along with rural depopulation, have been critical in this process.

Scottish Natural Heritage is unflinching in the face of the criticism. A spokesman said simply: “Steve Piper’s opinion is not one that we share. And we’ve no idea where he gets his figures from.”

This ought to matter a great deal to Scotland and its sense of itself. While the Highlands sustains several famous animals, almost all of them can also be found in other countries. The Scottish wildcat is unique to Scotland. It cannot stand to be around humans or their habitats, and thrives on its own, hunting rabbits, birds and rodents. The hybridised wildcat, though, will exhibit few such solitary tendencies.

As the last few Scottish wildcats run free and un-intruded upon in one of the world’s wildest neighbourhoods, a few hundred miles away two of another threatened species, the giant panda, are reduced to a grotesque circus act eating bamboo and playing hide and seek with a million rubbernecks.

The Edinburgh Zoological Society committed £8m of public money (it’s a charity) to hire a Chinese circus act. The same amount of money might give a unique Scottish species a sporting chance of survival. But if it is to disappear, better that it does so running free in a bleak wilderness and not before a wretched human audience in a glass menagerie.

This article was written by Kevin McKenna for the Guardian.

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