Wildcats bred in captivity released in national park

Scottish Wildcats living in the wild are ‘functionally extinct’ due to habitat loss and being bred out by mating with feral domestic cats.
Scottish Wildcats living in the wild are ‘functionally extinct’ due to habitat loss and being bred out by mating with feral domestic cats.

Scottish wildcats bred in captivity have been released into a national park in an effort to curb their extinction.

The Saving Wildcats partnership, led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), released 22 wildcats into the Cairngorms National Park in a bid to save the species, which has previously been declared “functionally extinct”.

The Woodland Trust estimates there may be less than 35 true Scottish wildcats left in the wild, with habitat loss and cross-breeding with domestic cats being two major reasons for their endangerment.

The Saving Wildcats partnership freed the cats in undisclosed areas of the park, where they will be monitored with GPS radio collars.

Approved by NatureScot, the trial releases mark the first conservation translocation of wildcats in Britain.

The Saving Wildcats partnership aims to release a total of 60 wildcats over the next three years.

David Field, chair of the Saving Wildcats project board and chief executive of the RZSS, said: “We are delighted that the Saving Wildcats partnership has taken this historic step towards securing a future for the species in Scotland.

“The time is now to give the ‘Highland Tiger’ the best chance of survival and I am thankful for the work of our team members, partners and supporters in making this happen.

“I am also particularly grateful for the support of our local community in the Cairngorms, as without their engagement we would not have reached this exciting milestone.”

Lorna Slater, co-leader of the Scottish Green Party and minister for biodiversity, added: “Wildcats are a much-loved native species in Scotland and yet their very existence is under threat.

“This announcement is welcome news and is an important step in ensuring the survival of the species.

“Reversing the dramatic losses in nature that we have seen in recent times is one of the defining challenges that our country faces.

“The Scottish Government remains committed to this fight and is actively working towards protecting and restoring our natural environment and the animals that rely upon it.”

The cats were born in a private location near the Highland Wildlife Park near Aviemore last year, with dozens more being bred for future releases.

The wildcats held at the Highland Wildlife Park are not available for public viewing in order to help prepare them for the wild.

NatureScot chief executive Francesca Osowska said: “A huge amount of work has laid the ground for these wildcat releases, and we’re proud to have played our part in that.

“Our research shows that wildcats are facing extinction in Scotland, which makes conservation translocations like this a vital tool for the species’ recovery.

“We have a good track-record of conservation translocation success in Scotland, with golden eagle, white-tailed eagle and beaver populations all recovering and supporting efforts to regenerate biodiversity.

“The newly-released wildcats will face significant challenges as they seek to establish themselves, so it’s crucial we continue to do everything we can to give them the best chance to survive, and thrive, in Scotland.”