UK

Birth of wildcat kittens in Kent wildlife park sparks hope for rarest UK mammal

Wildwood Trust said the litter were born about nine weeks ago in a dedicated off-show breeding enclosure, to parents Talla and Blair.

Conservationists at Wildwood Trust are celebrating the arrival of wildcat kittens (Dave Butch/Wildwood Trust)
Conservationists at Wildwood Trust are celebrating the arrival of wildcat kittens (Dave Butch/Wildwood Trust)

The birth of wildcat kittens at a Kent wildlife park has sparked fresh hopes for the survival of Britain’s rarest mammal species, conservationists said.

The Wildwood Trust’s Herne Bay park, just outside Canterbury, said the litter were born around nine weeks ago in a dedicated off-show breeding enclosure, to parents Talla and Blair.

Laura Gardner, director of conservation at the trust, said the kittens will play an important role in bringing back the species from the “brink of extinction”.

European wildcats are considered rarer than the Bengal tiger and giant panda, and are the only native cat species surviving in Britain, with a small population still roaming the Scottish Highlands.

But with an estimated fewer than 300 individuals left, the population has been declared “functionally extinct”.

A wildcat kitten recently born at the Herne Bay park in Kent. (Dave Butcher/Wildwood Trust)
A wildcat kitten recently born at the Herne Bay park in Kent. (Dave Butcher/Wildwood Trust)

Ms Gardner said: “Wildwood has been breeding wildcats for over ten years, building knowledge and expertise of the species which has led to our amazing breeding success.

“By working together with the breeding programme partners, we are ensuring the beautiful wildcat has a future in Britain.”

The kittens at Wildwood will contribute to the wildcat conservation breeding programme coordinated by The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), which has been designed to support the restoration of the species in Britain.

A healthy population of reintroduced wildcats will help to restore the balance in the ecosystem by controlling numbers of prey animals, such as rabbits and rodents, and of predators such as foxes through competition for food, conservationists said.

This in turn can have a ripple effect across ecosystems, by which habitats for many more plant and wildlife species can be restored, they added.

A wildcat kitten recently born at the Herne Bay park in Kent. (Dave Butcher/Wildwood Trust)
A wildcat kitten recently born at the Herne Bay park in Kent. (Dave Butcher/Wildwood Trust)

Wildwood, which has a successful history of breeding wildcats, said the new kittens are the first to be born since the completion of dedicated breeding enclosures at the Herne Bay park.

Sally Holt, head of carnivores and small mammals at Wildwood, said the new facilities have been key in helping support the breeding of this secretive species.

“Wildcats have very particular den box preferences, so we worked hard with researchers to find the right design for the new enclosures,” she said.

“The off-show enclosures have created a quieter environment, which will help the kittens develop key survival skills without becoming habituated to people.”

“Our remote cameras mean we can monitor their behaviour and it’s been wonderful to see their characters develop.

The kittens, which are around nine weeks old, were born in a dedicated off-show breeding enclosure at the wildlife park just outside Canterbury, to parents Talla and Blair. (Dave Butcher/Wildwood Trust)
The kittens, which are around nine weeks old, were born in a dedicated off-show breeding enclosure at the wildlife park just outside Canterbury, to parents Talla and Blair. (Dave Butcher/Wildwood Trust)

“They have such a close bond already and enjoy playing and sleeping next to each other.”

Ms Holt said the kittens will undergo health checks with the park’s veterinary team in the coming days.

The team will also check their sex and gather data on neck circumference measurements for collaring research that will support future tracking and release success.

Wildwood Trust said people can support the wildcat conservation work at https://www.wildwoodtrust.org/support-us/save-the-wildcat.