By Peter Cooper (6min read)

English Wildcat Project
Credit Kathy Holder©

The wildcat was once found throughout the British Isles, until human persecution due to the potential threat it posed to rabbit warrens, poultry and game birds lead to its extinction in England and Wales by the 19th century. It was almost wiped out in Scotland too. But by the 20th century the population was so weakened that the only available option for breeding were domestic cats, leading to mass hybridisation on a scale unparalleled anywhere else in its range. It has been so dramatic that this year, the IUCN declared the wildcat functionally extinct in Scotland, and by effect, Britain.

However, all hope is not lost. Projects like the Iberian Lynx recovery programme in Spain show that even for traditionally challenging species like carnivores, successful captive breeding and reintroduction is possible, and this is what our wildcat needs. While British conservation efforts so far have focused on the species’ last holdout in Scotland, we feel it is also right to restore this animal across its former haunts in England and Wales. The latter two countries also lack hybrids, which live and behave more like wildcat that encourages further introgression. This provides intriguing potential for restoring the ‘Celtic tiger’.

Breeding For Release

Before we look at any reintroduction however, we desperately need to increase the number of good-quality wildcats we have in captivity to supply a suitable breed-for-release population. Wild individuals in Scotland are out of the question from a genetic basis, but the UK zoo population of wildcats is actually of higher genetic quality, and more akin to historical specimens of wildcat rather than the hybrids of today.

Under the management of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), the number of both holders and births of captive wildcats have increased in the last few years, but there is still a lot of work to do. Here at Derek Gow Consultancy, Derek and myself completed a strategy document last year for potential funders and partners detailing an operational plan for potential English and Welsh reintroduction, and since then we have significantly increased our captive breeding capacity for wildcats.

We currently have two breeding pairs, alongside two additional males. As members of the RZSS-managed UK wildcat breeding programme, it was recommended we swapped two of our individuals with new wildcats from Aigas Field Centre to form two new pairs. We’re now delighted to say that three months ago, one of our females gave birth to four healthy kittens (3 males and a female), providing vital new animals in the fight to save the British wildcat’s future.

Ongoing progress

This month, we also significantly expanded the capacity we have to hold further pairs with the completion of six large new enclosures. These have been inspired in design by the pens at Fieldstation Bockengut in Switzerland, a facility used for behavioural research and previously breeding for release of wildcats that is run by Marianne Hartmann, a zoologist who specialises in feline behaviour. Over the course of the 80s and 90s, Marianne bred wildcats that were physically and mentally fit for natural lives, and the offspring of her animals went on to thrive when released in the Bavaria Forest National Park. Back in April, I and three other colleagues visited the fieldstation to learn the best techniques for producing plenty of able wildcats.

The key to successful and healthy cats (both physically and mentally) in Marianne’s experience is enclosure structure and keeper behaviour. With wildcats (and many other carnivores), it is not so much the quantity of enclosure that is most important, but the quality. Plenty of above-ground platforms and bridges criss-crossing the pen and numerous structural features below, particularly dense vegetation, provides the cats with choice and plenty of stimuli to explore. Multiple dens on the ground further this element of choice, which is particularly important when females are rearing kittens. All these features have been replicated in our enclosures.

As a naturally elusive species, human contact is kept to a minimum, and the pens have been constructed in a quiet corner of the farm that overlooks the new 130-acre wilding area with its heck cattle, Exmoor ponies and Iron Age pigs. That said, daily feeding and cleaning is of course still required. As per Marianne’s recommendation, a good continuation of keepers that speak to the cats while working in the enclosures ensures the animals trust and do not feel intimidated by staff, while also maintaining their wild natures.

Given that the crucial requirement right now in regards to UK wildcat restoration is breeding large numbers of high-quality wildcats, this is the current focus of our attention and we look forward to welcoming more cats into our new complex. Ambitious, large-scale conservation projects such as these cannot be done in isolation however, and we are working closely with colleagues in both the UK and Europe to ensure the best future outcome for wildcats.

Key partnerships & collaboration

This includes liaising closely with the Vincent Wildlife Trust and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, two charities with a hugely successful track record in species recovery, who this year announced an official partnership to establish British wildcats outside of Scotland. The VWT have undertaken an ecological feasibility assessment for England and Wales which due to be published soon, and both groups are co-supervising a PhD student at the University of Exeter, primarily investigating social feasibility, that started last month. It is likely that it will take 3-5 years of breeding wildcats in captivity before there are enough animals to supply a breed-for-release population, in which many crucial components of pre-release method, such as reintroduction site assessments, stakeholder communication and engagement, and domestic cat mitigation can take place. We will be keen to support what we can with this.

In a country where our natural heritage is declining faster than ever before, being able to reverse the complete eradication of a species brings stories of hope. With enthusiasm for restoring the wildcat across Britain increasing, we are hopeful that by putting best practice in place and working within communities and collaborative partnerships, we can let our last remaining felid roam wild across Scotland, England and Wales once more.