The Scottish wildcat could become extinct in the wild within months as the number of pure-bred individuals has fallen perilously low, according to conservationists.
Generally considered to be a subspecies of the wildcat, Felis silvestris, the Scottish wildcat is under serious threat from interbreeding with domestic and feral cats, as well as from disease.
Previous estimates put the number of pure-bred wildcats at around 400, while a report from the Cairngorms Wildcat Project, funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), recently estimated that just 150 breeding pairs remain.
Numbers alarmingly low
A team from the Scottish Wildcat Association (SWA) has now reviewed 2,000 records of camera trap sightings, eyewitness reports and road kill to assess the number of remaining pure-bred cats, based on accepted coat markings that identify a true wildcat.
Alarmingly, they found that only 1 in 100 individuals was pure-bred. Out of an estimated 3,500 wildcats and hybrids, this suggests that as few as 35 pure-bred individuals may now remain, putting the Scottish wildcat at serious risk of extinction in the near future.
According to Steve Piper of the Scottish Wildcat Association, “However you juggle the figures it’s hard to find anything positive. If you ignore the eyewitness sightings because they’re unreliable the numbers get even worse.”
“Even if you decide the population of hybrids is larger you have to multiply it to impossible levels to get to the commonly quoted figure of 400 wildcats. The overwhelming evidence is that the wildcat is going to be extinct within months, anything else is blind hope.”
Conserving the Scottish wildcat
The Scottish Wildcat Association has suggested that licensed trapping of wildcats should be allowed so that blood samples can be taken, giving scientists a better understanding of the state of the wildcat population.
It has also been suggested that pure-bred wildcats should be relocated to areas with fewer risks and where they can be better protected.
Scottish Natural Heritage has said that the Scottish wildcat is a priority species, and the organisation is producing a new Wildcat Action Plan aimed at conserving this unique feline.
According to a spokesperson for Scottish Natural Heritage, “We agree that the evidence points to wildcat populations being in a parlous state. However, we need to be careful when drawing conclusions from sub samples and unverified records. The limited survey information available on this cryptic species provides an uncertain basis from which to state precisely how many animals may be living in the wild. This is something the action plan might seek to address.”
Read more on this story at BBC News – Scottish wildcat extinct within months, association says.
Find out more about the Scottish wildcat at the Scottish Wildcat Association.
Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author