Scottish wildcats are a nearly-extinct species of cat that looks similar to, and can interbreed with, house cats. Specifically, they look like thick-furred tabbies. They also seem to inspire some rather dramatic language, being called “highland tigers”, or, in the case of this video, the last king of Scotland:
To be fair, I did name my cat His Holiness Saint Ray the Cat, so I guess I’m not one to talk. By now I’m sure you’re aware that if you have a pet cat, you should probably keep it indoors. It does mean you’ll probably have to put more effort into entertaining it, but it really would be for the best, for the ecosystem around you. With climate change, pollution, and feral cats, I think it’s probably for the best if we do what we can to take a little pressure off.
One thing that’s important to keep in mind about housecats is that they do not operate like a normal member of an ecosystem. Humans actively maintain their presence, while protecting them from diseases, and giving them safe shelter from predators and from the elements. Feral cats are more vulnerable, of course, but they don’t exist in isolation from fully domestic cats. There’s interbreeding, if pet owners don’t spay or neuter their pets, there are pets that get lost or abandoned, and become feral. Human activity, absent a real effort to the contrary, tends to support and maintain feral cat populations, in addition to maintaining a population of unnaturally healthy pet cats that also kill local wildlife.
These concerns are generally raised because of the harm done by feral and pet cats to bird and rodent populations, but when you add in a creature like the Scottish wildcat, interbreeding becomes a huge problem. There are simply more house cats than wildcats, and because they can interbreed, the house cat population will absorb the handful of remaining feral cats in much the same way that Homo sapiens absorbed the dwindling Neanderthal population, if left unchecked. Biologists will be able to point to DNA markers of distant wildcat ancestry in the feral cat population, but wildcats, as a species, will no longer exist.
When it comes to the question of whether there are any “pure” wildcats left, I think that the answer lies not just in genetic analysis, but also in behavior, and the role they play in the ecosystem. As the video below mentions, feral housecats behave very differently from wildcats. Where wildcats are solitary outside of breeding season, and maintain a low level of density, feral housecats form colonies, generally supported by a mix of wild prey and well-meaning but misguided humans who feed them. That social behavior harbors diseases, which can then be passed on to the wildcat population.
The feral cats are a problem for the wildcats, but if feral cats were to fully replace the wildcats, it would be worse for the ecosystem. In addition to maintaining low population density, wildcats do often go for larger prey than housecats, sometimes even taking fauns, which is probably which they’ve historically made farmers nervous. Referring again to the video below, having a mid-sized predator around changes the behavior of prey species, which in turn changes the impact that they have on the rest of the ecosystem. It seems odd to call a little creature like this an “apex predator”, but in the highlands as they exist, the title seems to fit.
There are three angles on conservation focused on predators like wolves or wildcats. One is the social aspect – they’re charismatic. These cats are extremely cute, and so it’s easy to get people to care about them. The second is that if you have a healthy, stable population of medium or large carnivores, that means that the entire ecosystem that’s feeding them is also healthy. It means that the various prey species are also getting enough to eat, and aren’t themselves being eaten to extinction. The third is the one I mentioned in the paragraph above, and I think it’s one that people are less likely to think of, so I’m glad it was brought up.
I find it encouraging that in this documentary that was put on Youtube 6 years ago, the expert estimated that the Scottish Wildcat had maybe 5-6 years left. That means that their efforts to preserve the species have actually been successful, so far, and while they’re not in the clear yet, they seem to have a real shot. That’s good news, both for the cats, and for our ability to deliberately reduce the harm that we’re doing to local ecosystems. The expert most cited in that video, Paul Donahue, has a point, in worrying that with only three or four dozen wildcats actually in the wild, capturing them for a breeding program would hurt more than it helps. I honestly don’t know whether that’s the case, but it seems as though the projected release of 20 cats per year would quickly make up for that loss. It’s also not clear to me whether they captured any new cats for the program, whether all the cats used were already being held in zoos. It seems to be the latter.
I was initially going to talk about the practice of “headstarting” turtles – raising them in captivity till they’re past the point at which hatchlings experience the highest mortality, to give them a better shot at surviving to adulthood than they would otherwise have. This program is similar to that, but a better comparison might be what happened with the black footed ferret in the midwestern United States. The short version is that they went from numbering in the tens of thousands to having just 18 individuals left in the entire world. There was a captive breeding program, an associated habitat conservation effort, and now there are several hundred of them in the wild.
The ferrets faced a different set of threats from the Scottish wildcat, and weasels are obviously not cats, but I think that the comparison is worth making. When it comes to conservation, I’m generally an “all of the above” sort of guy. I think we should do as much as we can both to help ecosystems recover from the harm we’ve been doing to them, while also reshaping our society to be more steady-state, and more a part of those ecosystems. As I said, I understand Donahue’s concern about taking cats from the wild for captive breeding, but that effort does seem to be progressing. The association Saving Wildcats has gotten approval to begin releasing captive-bred wildcats into Cairngorms National Park in northeast Scotland, starting in June. This is sort of a trial period, during which they’ll be releasing small numbers, tracking them with GPS collars, and seeing how they do:
The first in a series of trial releases at undisclosed locations in the National Park is planned for June. The Saving Wildcats project said it would be the first conservation translocation of wildcats in Britain. Eventually, as many as 20 wildcats could be released annually.
Scotland’s nature agency, NatureScot, approved the licence for this summer’s release. It assessed Saving Wildcats’ application in line with the Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations. The process considers a range of issues including animal welfare, site suitability and potential impacts on neighbouring and community interests.
Saving Wildcats, which involves a number of organisations, has been breeding the animals at Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig, near Aviemore. The wildcats are to be released in a 600 sq km area involved in a landscape conservation project called Cairngorms Connect.
It is a partnership of neighbouring land managers – Wildland Limited, Forestry and Land Scotland, RSPB Scotland and NatureScot – working towards a 200-year vision to enhance habitat, species and ecological processes.
NatureScot’s head of biodiversity, Dr Katherine Leys, said Saving Wildcats offered a lifeline for the species. “This journey is not without difficulty, and we know that there are more hurdles to overcome before we reach the point where we are ready to release the Wildcats into carefully selected areas of the Cairngorms National Park.
“Once there, the Wildcats will face further challenges, so it’s crucial the project continues to work with local communities, farmers, land-owners and cat owners to ensure wildcats are given the best chance to survive and thrive.”
Saving Wildcats project lead and Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s head of conservation, Dr Helen Senn, added: “When the time comes, we will be able to move Wildcats under licence from pre-release enclosures at Highland Wildlife Park to carefully selected areas in the Cairngorms Connect landscape which provide a suitable mix of habitats and potential prey for the species.
“After release, the Wildcats will be monitored using GPS collars as they face the many challenges of life in the wild. The fight to restore Scotland’s Wildcat populations is just beginning and we are grateful to everyone providing expertise and support along the way.”
Apparently the National Farmers Union of Scotland is also on board, which is good, because farmers concerned about livestock were part of why wildcats have come so close to extinction.
As they say, there’s a ways to go yet before they’re at the hoped-for 20 cats rewilded per year. Even so, this is a big step in the right direction. I mentioned the division among activists on this issue, between focusing on providing the right conditions for the wildcat population to recover on its own, and doing the captive breeding that led me to write this post. Part of the reason I like “all of the above” approaches, where they are possible, is that the work that has been done to control feral cat populations, and to get landowners on board with preserving habitat, and helping keep track of the wild population – all of that work will absolutely increase the likelihood that the captive breeding program will succeed.
I don’t know the extent to which those efforts have been active around Cairngorms, but I believe work like that has been ongoing across Great Britain. The future is still very uncertain for the “highland tiger”, but from where I’m sitting, there’s more than a glimmer of hope.
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