Scotland changes course to save its last native wildcats

Scotland changes course to save its last native wildcats

Great Britain has lost its entire suite of top land predators over the past few thousand years: wolves (Canis lupus), brown bears (Ursus arctos) and lynx (Lynx lynx) have all vanished from the island, largely due to habitat loss, hunting and persecution.

Now it’s on the verge of losing a much smaller one, and its only remaining native felid: the European wildcat (Felis silvestris).

Found today in a few small pockets of northern Scotland, the wildcat has been put on what’s described as an “intensive care” program of captive breeding and reintroduction into one carefully selected area. The plan is to release 20 cats a year, starting in 2023, for up to three years, with the aim of sufficiently reinforcing those cats that are still there to build a self-sustaining, viable population.

But how did the situation get so desperate that such a last-gasp intervention was deemed necessary? Wildcats are small carnivores, slightly larger than domestic cats, and are found across Europe, including in France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, most of the Iberian Peninsula and large parts of Eastern Europe.

While there are concerns about population declines in mainland Europe, the situation is nowhere near as perilous for the species as it is in Scotland. Will this new captive-breeding approach save an animal affectionately called the “Highland tiger” and regarded as emblematic of Scotland’s wildness? Even those conservationists in charge of the program accept this is far from certain.

Lead Image: Scottish wildcat. Photo courtesy of Stewart Grant/Cairngorms National Park.

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