SIX safe havens for Scotland’s surviving population of wildcats have been identified.
As few as 35 “purebred” wildcats could be left in the wild and the safe areas may be their last chance to stage a recovery.
The six areas have all been selected because experts believe purebred wildcats already live in the areas. Work could start at the beginning of next year.
By capturing and moving feral cats and hybrids, it is hoped more pure wildcats will be able to breed and help the species recover.
It was revealed in 2012 that the number of wildcats largely untainted by cross-breeding had fallen to as low as a few dozen.
The following year, further research suggested a collapse in colonies of rabbits was contributing to the dire predicament of the wildcat.
Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), working with the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan, yesterday (tue) revealed its list of safe havens.
Recommended priority areas for conservation action will be the Angus Glens, northern Strathspey, Morvern in south-west Lochaber, Strathavon, Strathbogie around Huntly in Aberdeenshire and Strathpeffer, Ross-shire.
SNH said the aim was “to protect the best remaining wildcat populations”.
They added: “The report detected examples of cats with many typical wildcat features in each of the locations – with it being likely there are more ‘good’ wildcats in these locations.
“But feral domestic cats and hybrids – crosses between wildcats and domestic cats – were also found.
“And that means more work must be done to tackle hybridisation, the main threat to wildcats.”
Experts will mount an “ambitious trap, neuter and release (TNR) programme to neuter all feral and hybrids cats”.
They will also encourage cat owners to neuter and vaccinate their pets as well as micro-chipping to make their animals easily identifiable.
Gamekeepers, farmers and foresters will be encouraged to reduce the risks to wildcats from predator control.
And wildcat populations will be monitored to see the benefits of this work.
Jenny Bryce, SNH’s wildlife ecologist, said: ”These priority areas give us real opportunity to halt the decline of the Scottish wildcat and preserve its distinctive identity.
“The Action Plan partners take a pragmatic view – there are good examples of wildcats out there, displaying many of the characteristics of this species. And this is very much the focus of the new Wildcat Action project.
“We have been encouraged by the number and the quality of wildcats that have been observed, given the relatively short duration of the surveys. We think this is indicative of populations persisting more widely.
“But the threats are ever-present and we need to act now to preserve animals that are distinctive as Scottish wildcats. And with the help of people in these communities we aim to do just that.”
More than 30 organisations representing land managers, the Scottish Government and various environmental charities back the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan.
The new report titled ‘Survey and Scoping of Wildcat Priority Areas’ was produced jointly by researchers at the James Hutton Institute, WildCRU and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS).
Fieldwork used camera traps, scent lures and live-trapping and has provided new insight to the wild-living cats in these areas. A limited sample of cat hair, droppings (or scats) and blood were subject to genetic tests.
Based on genetic tests carried out by the WildGenes laboratory at RZSS, all the wild-living cat samples collected in the last 30 years appear to have some domestic cat genetic markers.
Experts say the term “pure” wildcat may, therefore , “not be helpful in conservation terms”.
Dr Rob Ogden, RZSS Head of Science commented: “We are observing a range of genetic mixes, from feral domestic through to predominantly wildcat.
“As our DNA tests develop, we are increasingly able to identify individual wildcats with the highest conservation value for the population”.
The survey findings support that there are wild-living cats displaying many of the typical wildcat features in these areas.
SNH said that as some of the cats tested had a high proportion of wildcat genetic markers “a pragmatic view is that our wildcats remain distinctive and are worthy of protection”.
And although the conservation effort will concentrated on the six areas this “will be complemented by other efforts to protect wildcats across their range”.
The report does not give an estimate of the number of wildcats living in the wild.