Last of the ‘Highland tigers’: new plans to halt the decline of the Scottish wildcat

Last week saw the announcement of a new 6 year action plan to reverse the decline of the Scottish wildcat. The joint initiative by Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Group combines both in-situ and ex-situ conservation strategies in attempt to remove the threats to wildcats and help boost their dwindling numbers.

The Scottish wildcat is the last remaining native member of the cat family living in Britain. Whilst most native mammal species found in Britain can be found elsewhere in the world, the Scottish wildcat, a cousin of the European wildcat, is unique to these islands. However, since the introduction of the domestic cat, the number of wildcats has declined and they are now considered to be critically endangered. Some experts now suggest that without human intervention, the wildcat will be extinct within two years. The principal cause of their decline is hybridisation with feral and domestic cats, leading to a loss of genetic integrity. This can raise many challenges in correctly identifying wildcats from often fleeting sightings.

The wildcat’s elusive nature and tendency to avoid human contact has made accurately measuring their populations extremely difficult. Current estimates put the number of remaining pure-bred wildcats living in the wild at somewhere between 35 and 100 individuals. Such a small population size drastically reduces population viability, suggesting that even with human intervention, the extinction of the pure-bred Scottish wildcat is almost guaranteed.

The plan itself lays out 4 action areas and follows up from  findings of the Cairngorms Wildcat Project, which successfully trialled many of the actions put forth by SNH and the SWCAG. The 4 action areas are:

  1. Identify and secure at least five stable populations of Scottish wildcats in the wild by 2019
  2. Promote greater awareness of the threats to wildcats from feral and domestic cats in priority areas
  3. Ensure that householders and others in wildcat hot spots recognise the importance of having their domestic cats neutered and vaccinated
  4. Increase the understanding of wildcat distribution, numbers and the extent of hybridisation with domestic cats

These actions will be supported by the development of a captive breeding program for the cats with a view of reinforcing wild populations in the future. Such wildcat captive breeding programs have been running across the UK for several years and have experienced varying degrees of success. Much doubt surrounds the genetic purity of these captive cats. However, a captive breeding program associated with this action plan  seems to be a secondary line of action, with the plan stating that the risks to wildcats must be addressed before any reintroductions can take place.

The action plan outlines a focus on conserving animals which “look like wild cats, but may not be genetically pure”, and bases identification on observable traits such as body size and shape. This seems to undermine the importance of preserving the pure-bred cats; the role of hybridisation in the decline of this animal is frequently highlighted yet the action plan attempts to conserve potential hybrids.  It becomes clear why this action plan has received some criticism.

The reality however, is that intervention on this scale may have simply arrived too late, meaning efforts to save the closest possible hybrid wildcat might be the best remaining option. Breeding closest possible hybrids and preventing further gene flow from feral and domestic cats means a viable population possessing a majority of pure wildcat genes could be produced, although there would always remain a genetic legacy of hybridisation within these populations.

A lack of detailed knowledge on wildcat genetics means that the degree of hybridisation in wild populations is still uncertain and a recurring message in the action plan is that conservation approaches will be reviewed in light of new information in this area. By linking more scientific research in this area with actions laid out in the plan, the future of the Scottish wildcat may at least have a less uncertain future.