Scottish wildcats arrived after the last ice age; these wildcats were once prevalent across northern parts of the UK mainland and Wales. After 10,000 years of isolation, they are now genetically distinct from European populations. However, their numbers have plunged due to habitat loss, disease, human persecution, interbreeding and road deaths.
Scottish conservationists have reported their Scottish wildcats are on the verge of extinction as there are approximately 30 left in the wild. Ecologists have fortunately devised a way to revive their numbers, so this species of cats will not be entirely extinct. They are currently breeding the felines in a captive and release program, and will reintroduce them to the Highlands of Cairngorms National Park- their former breeding homes.
The project is led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and will have a funding of 3.2 million pounds over six years, commencing in 2022. At the reintroduction center located in the Highlands Wildlife Park at Kincraig, the cats will be bred and conditioned freely in a remote area from human intervention. The aim is to release at least 60 wildcats from this shelter. The number may seem low; however, for the cats to freely multiply and thrive, they require considerable and extensive spaces of clear land. Highly-effective GPS collars will track the whereabouts of the cats so their health can be monitored and to ensure they are thriving.
The driving force behind this project is the urgent need to save the Scottish wildcats from the face of extinction; they are already witnessing innumerable threats associated with serious endangerment, and if not brought out from this scenario at the earliest, the world will lose its last traces of this species. The project will occur using the Scottish cats that are a part of the captive population and from some other parts of Europe to enhance the pool of genes and open doors for an authentic breed.
The leading cause behind the extinction of the Scottish cats is the rare availability of the species and their crossbreeding. These cats mostly roam freely through the woods and seamlessly enter the domestic realms, they mate the conventional variants of cats, thereby diluting their original constituents gradually. The feral cat is the direct result of the hybrid, which has inherited similar characteristics from both the Scottish and domestic cats. Even when breeding occurs as a natural process, experts state that the general public who own cats will have a crucial role to play to discourage hybridization.
Eileen Stuart, head of policy with Scottish Natural Heritage, a government conservation agency, said efforts to ensure the survival of the species must involve help from the wider public.
“A key part of this will be a national conversation on a domestic pet and feral cat populations and how we manage these,” she said. “The public will have an important role in helping minimize future hybridization. Responsible cat ownership – including micro-chipping, neutering and vaccinations – is one way we can help reduce the devastating effects on wildcats.”