Cat owners across Scotland are being asked to help protect the highly endangered Scottish wildcat. Experts estimate there are fewer than 300 wildcats left in the wild, but Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA) hopes pet and farm cats will play a key part in helping save the day. So what is involved and, crucially, what can you do to help?
Hybridisation is understood to be the biggest threat to the Scottish wildcat. Unneutered domestic cats that come into contact with them can breed and produce fertile offspring. Unfortunately, because wildcats are vastly outnumbered, this dilutes their gene pool and carries the additional risk of disease transmission. Diseases that are a threat to both domestic cats and wildcats include Feline Leukaemia (FeLV) and Feline Aids (FIV). The best way to provide protection from these fatal diseases and other threats is to both neuter and vaccinate domestic cats. Getting your cat neutered and vaccinated helps wildcats by reducing the risks of cross-breeding and disease that are wiping out the last few wildcats in Scotland.
Towards the end of last year, SWA launched the trap, neuter, vaccinate and return (TNVR) program across the project’s six priority areas. TNVR is a safe, non-lethal method with the highest cat welfare standards built in, and is a vital tool in the effort to protect wildcats from hybridisation and disease from feral cats.
The team at Scottish Wildcat Action who are carrying out TNVR in the Angus Glens, an area identified as having the most quality wildcats of the six priority areas, have given us a helpful insight into their work so far:
TNVR got underway in the Angus Glens in early December and will continue until mid-March. The idea is simple – bait the trap; set the trap and hey presto, you have your target cat! Well, not quite!
Initial work begins with the systematic placing of camera traps through the forests to determine the presence of cats in the area. Every image, every sighting helps us build a picture of local wildcats and helps us protect them.
Cats are by nature cautious and pretty smart, so it’s fascinating to get a glimpse into the secretive lives of these animals. Often you can spend hours in their environment and pretty much never see them, then you get home, check you cameras and find out they visited your camera trap an hour after you were there! Indeed a key aspect of our daily work is going through all the images captured on camera, this can be variable from just 50 pictures to anywhere near 1727!
It is exciting to watch the cats engaging with the prey items, which we tie to tree trunks, and off the ground so the cats have to reach up and twist and turn to get it. This allows us to get photographs at different angles and importantly it allows us to get a good look at the pelage markings, allowing us to check for wildcat features, such as a ringed, bushy tail.
Once a cat is caught on camera and it is identified as not been a wildcat, neighbors’ and farms in the local area are contacted and shown the images to ensure the cat is not owned. If it is identified as not having an owner, it is then targeted for TNVR.
Trapping for cats, or trapping for a specific target feral cat is not an easy job, but persistence does eventually pay! Food proves to be a good motivator! When we do catch for TNVR, animal welfare is paramount and noise, movement and lights are kept to a minimum. The veterinary surgery is located in Kirremuir (Thrums), and cats are usually ready for release in the early afternoon on the same day.
So far we have had a positive reaction from people in the area. There is a genuine interest and positive reaction when they discover that you are making an effort to help this beautiful, native species. We are increasingly being asked to help identify possible wildcats or hybrids in person or on film, by gamekeepers, farmers, residents and lucky people who’ve caught an image on camera. This shows the value of working with the local community to raise awareness of wildcats.
For further information on the Scottish Wildcat Action or to find out how you can get involved in the project visit their website.
Karen Ramoo, Policy Officer (Conservation and Wildlife Management)