Wildcat conservationists come to blows over feral cat control

The woeful demise of the Scottish Wildcat (F. s. silvestris) is arguably one of the most pressing conservation concerns facing the UK at present.Indeed, now Britain’s most endangered mammal species, the wildcat now sits on the edge of an abysshabitat loss, persecution and more importantly, interbreeding with introduced feral cats ( Felis silvestris catus) pushing the iconic highland denizen to the brink of extinction. It should come as consolation that in recent times the species has been subject to a high profile media campaign highlighting its plight and now is the focus of huge push to restore numbers. A push brought about by both Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA), the official body governing wildcat conservation, and Wildcat Haven – an independent group working towards the preservation of this much loved species.

With so many people working to reverse the decline of the wildcat it may seem that things are looking up for the feline though this week conservation efforts found themselves hampered by infighting between the two groups. Infighting stemming from a fundamental disagreement on how best to deal with feral cats – the single biggest threat to Scotland’s remaining wildcats. The latest bout of distrust emerging after it was revealed that SWA have authorised the “humane dispatch” of feral cats trapped as part of the project – a move Wildcat Haven have branded as “barbaric and entirely unnecessary“.

It has long been known that Wildcat Haven stand virulently opposed to the killing of feral cats. The reasons for this centering on a number of factors but not least compassionate grounds and the risk that peoples pets could be mistakenly destroyed. WH state that lethal control measures pose a direct threat to wildcats that could be mistakenly killed in place of their feral counterparts and believe such measures may in fact not be beneficial to conservation measures on the whole – citing Australian research (found here) that concludes that killing feral cats simply encourages more to colonise the area in question. They believe that in order for lethal measures to succeed, the whole population of feral cats must be  eradicated – admittedly, an unlikely prospect given the 1000/1 ration of feral cats to wildcats in Scotland. Instead the group, funded by various overseas sources, champion a trap/neuter/return (TNR) approach.

This opposition this week lead Wildcat Haven to call for the “suspension and a detailed review of the Scottish Wildcat Action Plan” – a move that Wildcat Action, backed numerous professional bodies (a list of which I will include below) to accuse WH of “misrepresenting the progress made in wildcat conservation“. Eileen Stuart, head of policy and advice at Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) later called up wildcat haven to produce evidence of their activities in order to ensure the two parties can work together in the future.

Disputing the claims of wildcat haven whom claim feral cats are trapped simply to be “blasted in the face with a shotgun” WA state that, contrary to the claims of wildcat haven, all trapped feral cats are humanely euthanised by their veterinary team – after being rigorously tested to determine their credentials. They state that such moves are in fact a lot safer than previous means of cat control such as nocturnal shooting which could lead to the inadvertent death of pure wildcats.Wildcat action have also made moves to return feral cats to their original location, though often landowners refuse to accept hybrid or domestic cats back on their land, leaving no option but to destroy them.


Surely I cannot be the only conservationist out there feeling a little, frustrated shall we say, at the current war of words raging between the two sides. Though undoubtedly full of good intent, wildcat haven by calling for a cessation to the current wildcat action plan appear to be directly opposing conservation measures aimed to protect the species  they claim to adore and why? Because of the deaths of a feral cats – a nonnative species that has no place in the British ecosystem. There may well be truth in the notion that killing feral cats simply encourages more into the target area – the same thing happens with foxes, a wealth of available resources proving too good to turn down.What choice is there however when landowners refuse to take feral cats back onto their property. Why would they? These are, after all, an invasive species that is going to hunt and kill various native critters thus putting further strain on an already embattled ecosystem. Personally I am not opposed to destroying cats once all necessary steps to return them have been rebuffed. This is not born of a dislike for the feisty felines (I own cats) but out of realism and an understanding that Wildcat Action are doing what must be done.

I sincerely hope that the two sides can set their differences aside soon and work together towards a common cause – the preservation of one of our islands most iconic predators. Should this prove impossible then maybe Wildcat Action should evaluate their ties to the opposing group. Oh and in case you were doubting the credentials of Wildcat Action the full list of those supporting the scheme can be found below:

Scottish Natural Heritage, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh University’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, the Cairngorms National Park Authority, the National Trust for Scotland, Forestry Commission Scotland, the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, and the Scottish Wildlife Trust

Image Credit: By Peter Trimming – Yawning ‘Kendra’Uploaded by Mariomassone, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18462225

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James Common
James is a nature writer, conservationist, blogger and birder; holding an MSc in Wildlife Management and working previously in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. He maintains a popular natural history blog at commonbynature.co.uk, writes regularly for Northumberland Wildlife Trust and, as its managing director, runs New Nature - the youth nature magazine.

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2 Responses

  1. I understand your viewpoint on feral cats and the need to control them. It sounds like Wildcat Haven stands for keeping all cats alive regardless of their impact on native wildlife. If Scottish Wildcat Action plan to trap and identify cats then domestic cats can be returned to owners if they have a collar or have been micro-chipped. If not, they should be euthanised, not just to allow Scottish wild cat populations to recover, but to protect native birds from feral cats if that’s a problem in the UK. I’m not yet familiar with the threat feral cats pose to UK native wildlife, but New Zealand is looking at regulating domestic cat ownership to reduce future feral populations that are decimating native species, and Australia announced a feral cat cull to protect its small mammals and birds. Australia already has a cat registration scheme in some territories. It’s time more domestic cat owners took responsibility for their pets by micro-chipping, neutering, and keeping pets within their gardens. Maybe then there wouldn’t be a growing feral cat problem and the associated decline in native species.

  2. James Common James Common says:

    I couldn’t agree more Tracy! Cats in the UK kill millions of birds each year (mot mentioning small mammals), the evidence suggests that they are not a driving factor in declines but surely with numbers like that they can not be helping matters, Wildcat Action, to me, have done everything right and it pains me to see a group that professes to care for wildcats deliberating hampering plans to aid them. Madness I tell you! We will just have to see how matters play out. Thanks for commenting,

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