NatureScot has approved a licence application from the Saving Wildcats partnership to release wildcats (Felis silvestris) in the Cairngorms Connect landscape during summer 2023. The decision marks the first-ever conservation translocation of wildcats in Britain, with the first in a series of trial releases being planned to help restore Scotland’s critically endangered wildcat population.
Led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), the application from Saving Wildcats was submitted in September 2022 and assessed by NatureScot in line with the Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations. The process considers a range of issues including animal welfare, site suitability and potential impacts on neighbouring and community interests.
In considering the licence application, NatureScot assessed the proposed release site, Cairngorms Connect, to be suitable for wildcat translocation from the project’s conservation breeding for release centre at RZSS’s Highland Wildlife Park.
The species is now on the brink of extinction in Scotland, and is extinct in the rest of the UK. A history of habitat loss, persecution and breeding with domestic cats, has forced the Scottish wildcat to a point where the population is no longer viable. Scottish wildcats are the same species as their European counterparts (Felis silvestris), which can be found in several areas of continental Europe, Turkey, and the Caucasus.
Cairngorms Connect is a partnership of neighbouring land managers (Wildland Limited, Forestry and Land Scotland, RSPB Scotland and NatureScot) working towards a 200-year vision to enhance habitat, species and ecological process across a vast 600 square kilometre area within the Cairngorms National Park. It is the largest habitat restoration project in the UK and is funded by the Endangered Landscapes Programme.
Releasing wildcats in the vast landscape of Cairngorms Connect will be an important first step in helping to re-establish the species in Scotland while achieving a range of benefits for people and nature in the Cairngorms National Park. There are, however, risks and challenges associated with the translocation of a predator species to the area, and success will rely on support from local communities.
NatureScot’s Head of Biodiversity Dr Katherine Leys said: “Habitat loss, persecution and hybridisation with domestic cats has brought the Scottish wildcat population to the brink of extinction. The Saving Wildcats partnership has been a lifeline for the species and our decision to grant a translocation licence to allow wildcats to be released in the Highlands of Scotland marks a crucial point in the long journey towards conserving this iconic species.
This journey is not without difficulty, and we know that there are more hurdles to overcome before we reach the point where we are ready to release the wildcats into carefully selected areas of the Cairngorms National Park. Once there, the wildcats will face further challenges, so it’s crucial the project continues to work with local communities, farmers, land-owners and cat owners to ensure wildcats are given the best chance to survive and thrive. We are incredibly proud to be part of the Saving Wildcats project, as we take another step towards restoring the ‘Highland Tiger’ to Scotland’s landscapes for future generations to cherish.”
Saving Wildcats project lead and RZSS Head of Conservation Dr Helen Senn said: “It is fantastic to reach this milestone and press ahead with planning for trial wildcat releases in the Cairngorms over the summer. When the time comes, we will be able to move wildcats under license from pre-release enclosures at Highland Wildlife Park to carefully selected areas in the Cairngorms Connect landscape which provide a suitable mix of habitats and potential prey for the species. After release, the wildcats will be monitored using GPS collars as they face the many challenges of life in the wild. The fight to restore Scotland’s wildcat populations is just beginning and we are grateful to everyone providing expertise and support along the way.”
Thomas MacDonell, Wildland Limited’s Director of Conservation, and member of the Cairngorms Connect Board said: “The four Cairngorms Connect land-managing partners – Wildland Limited, Forestry and Land Scotland, NatureScot, and RSPB Scotland – work collaboratively to deliver landscape-scale restoration across 600 sq. km within the Cairngorms National Park, making it the perfect release location. We’re delighted to be a part of restoring this iconic Scottish species”.
Saving Wildcats is one of the largest species conservation projects in Britain and it is supported by national and international experts including RZSS, NatureScot, Forestry and Land Scotland and the Cairngorms National Park Authority, together with European partners Nordens Ark and Junta de Andalucía.
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