THE PLIGHT OF THE SCOTTISH WILDCAT

The future existence of Scotland’s most elusive mammal was given a boost recently with the announcement that the conservation project has received a £973,000 Lottery grant.  The recipient of the money, Wildcat Action, which consists of over 30 organisations including community groups and landowners, will spend the next five years combating the cat’s ongoing demise in six ‘priority areas’ across Scotland where it is thought it will have the best chance of population growth.  The designated areas include:  the Angus Glens, Strathbogie in Aberdeenshire, Strathavon in Moray and Morvern, Strathpeffer and Dulnain in the Highlands.

Scottish Wildcat numbers have been in decline for decades, due to interbreeding with domestic cats, habitat loss and disease.  To compound matters, despite much research, nobody seems to know how many are left and where exactly their strongholds are.  Estimated numbers left in the wild recently have ranged dramatically from less than 50, to over 500.  What is clear is the urgent need to establish havens for the remaining populations that have not become hybridised with domestic cats.  All this is very encouraging, but it has come far too late.

Scottish Natural Heritage is at the forefront of the research into safeguarding the species; however, it has also received a considerable amount of criticism for the role it has played up until now.  For those who have followed the plight of the Scottish Wildcat closely over the years, it often feels like this creature has been neglected by complacency, in favour of more commercial projects.  Given that SNH gets £50 million annually from the Scottish government to protect our few remaining indigenous animals, the situation is inexcusable.

The outcome of this apparent incompetence being that conserving a genetically pure population is now a remote possibility.  There have been strong misgivings, even from within SNH, that methodologies being implemented are simply not fit for purpose.  As for the designated ‘priority areas’, this contains habitats that have had no trace of Wildcat activity recorded and substantial regions of the western Highlands were not even included in the surveying.  Even the apparently irrefutable genetic evidence they have gathered has been called into question, as the roots of the data have originated from a population in Switzerland.  A more committed and less bureaucratic approach will have to be adopted if pure Scottish Wildcats are to survive.

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Gordon Eaglesham

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