Nearly 20 young wildcats have been released into the wild in a pine forest in the Scottish Highlands, in the first phase of a project to rescue the species from extinction in the UK.
The cats were reared at a wildlife park operated by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) as part of a breeding programme that will eventually lead to about 60 wildcats being released in the Cairngorm mountains south of Inverness.
The project, the first time a predatory mammal has been deliberately reintroduced in the UK, was set up after the cats’ numbers plummeted as a result of significant losses of native woodland, human persecution and interbreeding with domestic cats.
In 2019, a landmark report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature said the Scottish wildcat population was close to being functionally extinct because of a loss of genetic integrity and population decline. Its wild population, estimated then to be about 30 animals, was found to be “no longer viable”.
Over the past three months, 19 young wildcats, raised from cats held in British collections including a number living in captivity at the RZSS wildlife park, have been released at a secret location in the Cairngorms, protected by CCTV cameras.
Helen Senn, of the Royal Zoological Society Scotland, looks over the Cairngorms landscape where wildcats could soon thrive. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/The Guardian
Each has been fitted with a GPS tag regularly monitored by staff from the Saving Wildcats programme, so their movements and behaviour can be tracked. The project also provides extra food, to supplement their normal diet of rabbits, voles and mice.
One of the 19 wildcats has since died, but the rest appear to be thriving and are venturing away from the release site, said Dr Helen Senn, who leads the RZSS project at the Highland wildlife park near Kingussie.
“It has been really positive, in the main,” she said. “We have seen evidence that the cats are able to hunt and fend for themselves. From that perspective, we’re really happy.” She said the first test would come this winter, once their quarry becomes scarce and colder weather sets in.
The decision to rear the cats a few miles away was deliberate, she added. It meant the animals experienced identical weather and ecological conditions, and had a far less stressful journey to the release site; the stressful process of travelling long distances and arriving in unfamiliar terrain can increase mortalities in release programmes.
Wildcats at the Highland Wildlife Park, in Kingussie, Scotland. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/The Guardian
It will be several years before its success can be evaluated. There will be two further releases in 2024 and 2025, at different sites in the Cairngorms. The team have fitted 100 camera traps in the area, to record the first group’s activities but also monitor other animals in the forest.
Senn said that if the species is truly to reestablish itself across Scotland, then the government and conservation movement must consider introducing strict measures to control domestic cats.
Those may need to include mandatory neutering of domestic cats – an approach that enjoyed high levels of public compliance in the Cairngorms release area, and mandatory micro-chipping, to prevent cross breeding and to allow proper monitoring of cats in the wild.
There also needed to be concerted efforts to expand the rich native woodlands that wildcats need, which in turn requires large-scale collaborations by private and public landowners of the kind seen in the Cairngorms, where most landowners collaborate in a rewilding programme known as Cairngorms Connect.
Senn said the wildcats project is the latest in a number of successful reintroductions, which included species such as beavers, sea eagles and golden eagles, but also conservation projects such as those devoted to red squirrels. Beavers in Scotland are now so numerous that NatureScot, the conservation agency, predicts there could be 10,000 living in the wild by 2030.
“There’s a real, positive groundswell of support for species recovery projects,” Senn said. “Seeing success creates positivity and it generates hope. Conservation can be quite depressing and I think it’s really important that people feel it can make a difference.”
The wildcats were reared at the Highland wildlife park in Kingussie. One of the released cats died, but the others appear to be thriving. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/The Guardian
However, people need to know there is no quick fix, she said, adding: “We can’t speed up ecological processes.”
Steve Micklewright, chief executive of the rewilding charity Trees for Life, said much of the success seen in Scotland was because its devolved government, a coalition between the Scottish National party and Scottish Greens, was creating “the political space” for conservation.
A new natural environment bill, its ambitious biodiversity strategy and its land reforms, including tackling environmental abuses on grouse moors, were quite unlike anywhere else in the UK. “That’s different, that’s exciting,” he said.
Other species being restored in Scotland
Beavers One of Scotland’s greatest reintroduction stories, beavers are recolonising the southern Highlands and spreading south towards the Tweed. Extinct in the wild until the early 2000s, the estimated Scottish population is about 1,500.
A Scottish Eurasian beaver on the River Ericht, near Blairgowrie, Scotland. Photograph: Ian Sherratt/Alamy
Capercaillie Once abundant yet now facing extinction, capercaillie numbers have stabilised to about 540 adults after concerted conservation efforts in secluded forests in the Cairngorms and northern Highlands.
Red squirrel Muscled out of their natural woodland range by grey squirrels across Britain, red squirrels are recovering in the Highlands and spreading north; some have been reintroduced around Shieldaig and Plockton on the west coast.
Golden eagles Persecuted for decades by gamekeepers and farmers, this apex predator is recovering fast, with well over 500 breeding pairs across Scotland, including 46 birds in the Scottish borders thanks to a recent relocation project.
Pine marten A cat-sized member of the weasel family, this woodland predator was persecuted heavily by gamekeepers. It is recovering, chiefly in the Highlands, but remains rare. Scotland’s population is estimated at 3,700 adults.