Historic milestone reached as wildcats released into the Cairngorms Connect Partnership Area

Posted: 15th June 2023

Photo: Saving Wildcats

After years of extensive preparations by the Saving Wildcats conservation partnership project, the release of 22 critically endangered wildcats into the Cairngorms Connect Partnership Area began last week as part of landmark efforts to save this charismatic species from extinction within Scotland.

Led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), the Saving Wildcats partnership has released the cats into undisclosed locations within the Cairngorms Connect landscape of the Cairngorms National Park where they will be carefully monitored using GPS-radio collars.

Approved under licence by NatureScot, the trial releases are the first-ever conservation translocation of wildcats in Britain in an effort to help restore Scotland’s critically endangered wildcat population. Approximately sixty wildcats will be released over the next three years.

It is estimated that only a few hundred wildcats remain in Scotland. Photo: Saving Wildcats.

The project, which has undertaken widespread engagement with local communities, has drawn on global conservation and scientific expertise to further understanding of wildcat ecology and behaviour.

Alex Macleod, Forestry and Land Scotland North Region Manager and Cairngorms Connect Board Member, said: “The Cairngorms Connect Partners are committed to a 200-year vision to restore habitats, ecological processes, and species across a vast area of the Cairngorms National Park.  The size, scale, and positive impact of our restoration efforts, make this landscape a great release location for the first conservation translocation of wildcats in Britain. We’re delighted to be a part of restoring this amazing species in Scotland.”

Restoring the population of Scottish wildcats will be a step in re-establishing trophic chains in the Cairngorms. Photo: Saving Wildcats.

Thomas MacDonell, Director of Conservation for Wildland Limited, on behalf of Cairngorms Connect said: “It’s fantastic that Cairngorms Connect have been selected as a suitable release site for these critically endangered cats and it is the best possible reward for the whole team at Wildland, along with the Cairngorms Connect partnership, to receive such recognition for all the hard work involved during the first twenty years we have been restoring our precious landscape.

“The Saving Wildcats team have been a pleasure to work with and we wish the cats every success in becoming an integral part of the wild ecosystem and our futures.”

The cats were born in a purpose-built off-show conservation breeding for release centre based at Highland Wildlife Park, near Aviemore, in 2022.

The Saving Wildcats team have made every effort to prepare the wildcats by moving them into large pre-release enclosures which support natural development, informed by other successful carnivore recovery projects such as Iberian lynx in Spain and Portugal. Photo: Saving Wildcats.

Despite detailed preparations ahead of the first release, one of the most difficult aspects of any conservation translocation is predicting how an animal will respond to being released.

Dr Helen Senn, Project lead and Head of Science and Conservation Programmes for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, said: “We know that inaction will result in extinction. As human activity is responsible for the wildcat’s decline, we have a responsibility to take action now to protect one of our rarest and most threatened mammals.

“Everything we learn from this closely monitored first trial release will help inform future releases.”

Within the lifespan of the project, it’s envisioned that approximately 20 cats will also be released in 2024 and 2025 from the conservation breeding for release centre. The cats bred for release are not available for public viewing to help them prepare for life in the wild.

The Saving Wildcat team will now focus on following the wildcats’ new lives in the wild and preparing the second generation of wildcats for release next year. Further updates from the project are expected to be issued at the end of the summer release period.

The conservation breeding and release of wildcats is being carried out by the Saving Wildcats partnership (#SWAforLIFE) led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) in collaboration with NatureScot, Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), The Cairngorms National Park Authority, Norden’s Ark and Junta de Andalucía. Releases are being conducted with the support of Cairngorms Connect. The project is funded with the contribution of the LIFE Programme of the European Union and other partners and organisations. 

To find out more about Cairngorms Connect, visit their project page

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