Frequently asked questions

Saving Wildcats (#SWAforLife) is a European partnership project dedicated to Scottish wildcat conservation and recovery.

Building on the work of Scottish Wildcat Action, the project is a step change for wildcat conservation in Scotland which now has an increased focus on captive breeding for release in order to safeguard this iconic species from extinction.

By bringing together the expertise and skills of national and international organisations, we can secure a future for the Highland tiger by breeding and releasing wildcats into the wild.

If you have a question, please read our FAQs below and email us if you need more information:

  • Why we need to save Scotland's wildcats

    Are wildcats extinct in Scotland?

    No. Wildcats are classified as critically endangered, though they are now on the brink of extinction in Britain following widespread population declines caused by centuries of persecution and habitat loss. More recently, the dwindling wildcat population has become increasingly threatened by genetic extinction caused by extensive interbreeding (also know as hybridisation) with domestic cats.

    Sadly Scotland’s wildcat population is now considered ‘non-viable’ following an independent review by the IUCN Cat Specialist Group. This means that although there may be some wild-living wildcats in Scotland, there are too few of them and hybridisation is too far advanced for them to form a self-sustaining population. Without urgent action, our wildcats will be lost forever.

    The IUCN report concluded wildcat releases at suitably prepared sites are now essential for the recovery of the species.

    Why should we save the wildcat?

    The wildcat is our rarest and most threatened mammal.

    Once widespread, the species is now on the brink of extinction in Britain following widespread population declines caused by centuries of persecution and habitat loss. More recently, the dwindling wildcat population has become increasingly threatened by genetic extinction caused by extensive interbreeding (also know as hybridisation) with domestic cats.

    The species also has a long history in Scottish culture and mythology and was revered by many Highland clans who used the wildcat in their clan crests. It is one of Scotland’s most iconic species, embodying wild nature for the Scottish Highlands.

    As human activity is responsible for the wildcat's decline, we have a responsibility to take action to protect our Highland tigers.

    Find out how you can help 

    What’s the difference between Scottish and European wildcats?

    The scientific name for both Scotland’s wildcats and the European wildcat is Felis silvestris silvestris, meaning they are the same species.

    However, our wildcat population has been isolated for around 10,000 years, since Britain became an island, which means Scotland’s wildcats are a unique, highly threatened, sub-population of the European wildcat.

    Through careful population management, Saving Wildcats will ensure that as much of the Scottish gene pool as possible is preserved for future generations. Though there is potential for mainland European wildcats to boost the gene pool for the Scottish population and this is an option under consideration.

    How do we know if a cat is a wildcat?

    Due to interbreeding between wildcats and domestic cats (feral or pet), there are some wild-living cats that have a mixture of wildcat and domestic cat genes and characteristics. These are called hybrids.

    Saving Wildcats uses a combination of coat markings (pelage) and genetic tests to identify wildcats and make sure that wildcats are protected and hybrids or feral cats are neutered to prevent further hybridisation taking place.

    All wildcats that will be released from the conservation breeding centre will need to pass pelage and genetic criteria to ensure any hybridisation is at the lowest possible level.

     

  • How Saving Wildcats plans to save our wildcats

    What is Saving Wildcats?

    Saving Wildcats (#SWAforLife) is a European partnership project dedicated to Scottish wildcat conservation and recovery. We aim to prevent the extinction of wildcats in Scotland by releasing them into the wild.

    Following on from the work of Scottish Wildcat Action, our plans include building Britain's only large-scale conservation breeding centre where wildcats will be trained and then released into the Cairngorms National Park.

    Find out more

    Why are releases needed if there are still wildcats in the wild?

    Wildcats are on the brink of extinction in Britain following widespread population declines caused by centuries of persecution and habitat loss. More recently, the dwindling wildcat population has become increasingly threatened by genetic extinction caused by extensive interbreeding (also know as hybridisation) with domestic cats.

    Sadly Scotland’s wildcat population is now considered ‘non-viable’ following an independent review by the IUCN Cat Specialist Group. This means that although there may be some wild-living wildcats in Scotland, there are too few of them and hybridisation is too far advanced for them to form a self-sustaining population. Without urgent action, our wildcats will be lost forever.

    The IUCN report concluded wildcat releases at suitably prepared sites are now essential for the recovery of the species.

    Why are we focussing on the Cairngorms National Park?

    The Cairngorms National Park has, historically, been a key site in the wildcat range and was considered as was one of the last strongholds for species. A major conference for wildcat conservation took place in the national park in 2008 which resulted in the launch of the first practical wildcat conservation project within the park, ‘The Cairngorms Wildcat Project’ as part of Scotland’s Species Action Framework.

    This project played an important role in developing stakeholder relationships across the park, establishing field protocols and methodologies and in raising awareness. Later, Tthis work was compleimented by the Scottish Wildcat Action project which expanded conservation action across Scotland whilst still having a presence in the national park.

    In addition to conservation work, the national park has several sites which offer expansive landscapes with suitable habitat, good prey availability and more potential for reducing threats, given the remote setting.

    Find out more about the history of wildcat conservation in Scotland

    How many wildcats will be released and when?

    We hope to carry out the first wildcat releases in 2022. This is dependent on a range of other factors, including release site preparations, threat control measures and pre-release training programmes.

    The plan is to release 20 individual wildcats each year from the Saving Wildcats conservation breeding centre and we are considering translocating cats from European populations to help boost the gene pool. These individuals and will have undergone an extensive pre-release training programme to ensure they are prepared for life in the wild.

    All released wildcats will be fitted with GPS collars to ensure their movements, activity patterns and behaviours can be monitored. The project area will also be systematically monitored using a network of camera-traps.

    What happens after the six years are over?

    Although Saving Wildcats has secured funding for an initial six years, the recovery of wildcats will be a long-term project taking many decades.

    An important part of the project plan was building in sustainability and continuation of actions and project partners have already committed to supporting further wildcat recovery action beyond the six years.

    Saving Wildcats will fundraise throughout this time to ensure wildcat recovery can take place long into the future.

    You can help secure a future for Scotland’s wildcats – find out more

    Will Saving Wildcats bring cats from Europe?

    The wildcats we release will predominantly be of Scottish origin. However, to ensure the conservation breeding programme has a diverse gene pool, some animals may be brought over from Europe from either the European captive breeding programme or from the wild where possible.

    Where appropriate, we will also explore the option of wild-to-wild translocation as another means of increasing the gene pool in the released population.

    Scottish wildcats are a sub-population of the mainland European population and not a sub-species. However, Saving Wildcats will preserve as many of the Scottish genes as possible through careful and selective breeding.

    While the IUCN red list assessment determines hybridisation with domestic cats is extensive and taking place across almost the entire range of the wildcat in Europe, research has shown that the extent of hybridisation in Scotland is far greater than most other European countries. Any cats brought into the breeding programme or translocated will be screened for disease and hybridisation levels.

  • Our partners and supporters - and why they're involved

    Saving Wildcats project partners

    The conservation breeding for release of wildcats is being carried out by the Saving Wildcats partnership led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) in collaboration with NatureScot, Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA), Norden’s Ark and Consejería de Medio Ambiente y Ordenación del Territorio de la Junta de Andalucía.

    By bringing together the expertise and skills of national and international organisations, we can secure a future for the Highland tiger.

    Lead partner

    The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) is the wildlife conservation charity that leads Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park, as well as supporting a wide range of research and conservation projects in Scotland and around the world. With a mission to safeguard threatened species and connect people to nature, RZSS were a key partner in Scottish Wildcat Action and are the current holders of the UK’s captive breeding programme.

    Other Scottish partners

    NatureScot (formerly called Scottish Natural Heritage) is Scotland’s nature agency, working to improve the natural environment in Scotland and inspire everyone to care more about it. NatureScot promotes, cares for and improves Scotland’s natural heritage, enabling a greater awareness of nature and helping people to enjoy nature responsibly. Looking to the future, NatureScot promotes the sustainable use of natural assets now. NatureScot was the lead organisation in the Scottish Wildcat Action partnership.

    Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) is the Scottish Government agency responsible for managing Scotland’s national forests and land. FLS is focused on managing and maintaining the woodland of national forest estates through forest planning, planting, harvesting, working with local communities and providing facilities and access for the public. Furthering the conservation of biodiversity is a statutory duty for FLS and the agency was a key partner in Scottish Wildcat Action.   

    The Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) was set up to ensure that the unique aspects of the Cairngorms – both the natural environment and the local communities – are cared for, sustained and enhanced for current and future generations to enjoy. Providing leadership to all those involved in the Cairngorms and working in partnership with a range of communities, businesses, non-government organisations and public sector partners to deliver practical solutions on the ground. The CNPA were also a key partner in Scottish Wildcat Action.

    European partners:

    Our European partners bring a variety of unique skills and expertise to the Saving Wildcats project.

    Both organisations have extensive experience with native species recovery projects and Junta De Andalucía leads the EU LIFE funded project for Iberian lynx, widely considered as one of the most successful recovery projects in the world.

    Saving Wildcats has a fantastic opportunity to learn from these partners and apply tried and tested techniques to both conservation breeding centre and post-release monitoring actions.    

    Junta de Andalucia (Spain) leads Europe’s most successful carnivore reintroduction having become dedicated to the recovery and conservation of Iberian lynx with extensive and proven experience following several years of successful lynx reintroduction as lead partner of the EU LIFE Recovery of the historical distribution for Iberian lynx in Spain & Portugal project.

    Nordens Ark (Sweden) is a private non-profit foundation dedicated to endangered species conservation. Engaged in conservation, animal management, research, training as well as awareness raising of biological diversity, Nordens Ark have led and partnered on multiple recovery projects and conservation projects in Sweden and overseas.

    Key funders

    In addition to support from project partners, Saving Wildcats is funded with the contribution of the LIFE Programme of the European Union and the generous support of the Garfield Weston Foundation, the National Trust for Scotland, the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and The European Nature Trust.

    Find out more about our supporters

  • Saving Wildcats funding

    How much will it cost to save the species?

    Saving Wildcats is a £5.4 million project funded with the contribution of the LIFE Programme of the European Union and the generous support of RZSS, NatureScot, CNPA, FLS, Scottish Natural Heritagethe Garfield Weston Foundation, the National Trust for Scotland, the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, and The European Nature Trust.

    Our project plans include developing Britain’s first dedicated conservation breeding for release centre for wildcats that will support a long-term vision for wildcat recovery in other key locations of Scotland 

    The first phase of Saving Wildcats runs for six years, but we believe there will be many economic benefits that will last long into the future. Scottish wildlife tourism plays a significant role in the Scottish economy and bringing wildcats back will boost wildlife tourism in the area and surrounding local communities.   

    Find out how you can help save Scotland’s wildcats

  • Responsible cat owners and volunteers

    Will there be opportunities for volunteers?

    Yes. we aim to establish a core volunteer team that will have opportunities to get involved with key conservation work including camera trap surveys and Trap-Neuter-Return of feral domestic cats.

    There will also be opportunities for students or volunteers to assist at the Saving Wildcats conservation breeding centre, though these will be limited.  

    We’ll share opportunities on our social media channels as they come up. You can also sign up for Saving Wildcats emails to be the first to know about news, events and chances to get involved.

    How do I report a wildcat sighting?

    While evidence shows there are very few wild-living cats that meet the genetic and pelage criteria for wildcats, you can submit any potential sightings to the Mammal Mapper App which is incredibley helpful for monitoring mammals nationwide.

    Can you help me have my cats neutered, vaccinated and microchipped?

    We recommend all pet owners contact their local veterinary practices to explore the best options for neutering, vaccinating and microchipping their cats. This is critical for our plans to restore the wildcat population to be successful.

  • Scottish wildcat behavior

    What do wildcats eat?

    Like many small cat species, wildcats are small mammal hunters specialising in rodents, such as mice and field voles. They are also capable of catching larger species such as rabbits and hare, and prefer to focus on the former if they’re readily available.

    Some other species, including birds as well as amphibians, reptiles and insects, have also been known to be eaten by wildcats, although this is rarely a significant part of their diet.

    How many wildcats make a viable population?

    Based on previous wildcat survey and scoping work carried out in 2014, it was suggested that a population of 40 cats (20 male and 20 female) would stand a 95% chance of survival over 50 years. It also noted that such a population would need at least 4,000ha of suitable habitat in a matrix of other habitat types.

    Habitat modelling of one site within the Cairngorms National Park showed that 37.3% of the habitat (around 22,123 ha) was of high quality, within a range of other mixed habitats.

    Saving Wildcats will release 60 wildcats over a three year period with the aim of establishing a minimum population size of 40 wildcats. 

    Is there a danger to other cats near the project area?

    Wildcats prefer to avoid confrontation with other animals and instead use a variety of communicative techniques to mark territories, den sites and to warn off other animals. This includes scent marking, scats (faeces) and scratch posts. However, just like domestic cats, wildcats are protective of their territories and young and will defend them if provoked by other animals.  

    Although we know from the extensive level of interbreeding in Scotland that wildcats and domestic cats can exist in close proximity, it is anticipated that domestic cat presence in and around the project area will be minimal following promotion of responsible cat ownership and threat control actions.

    As feral domestic cats and hybrids pose a significant risk to wildcats through both hybridisation and disease, they will be controlled using a trap, neuter, vaccinate and return policy.

    In situations where the health of a feral domestic cat is compromised, or if they are considered a disease risk to wildcats, then they will be humanely euthanized by a qualified veterinarian.

    Are released wildcats a threat to people or livestock?

    No. Wildcats prefer to avoid humans and there is no evidence to suggest they will be a threat to livestock. Wildcats specialise in small mammal prey, with rodents and rabbits being the preferred choice.

    Just like domestic cats, wildcats are protective of their territories and young and will defend them if provoked by other animals. As with other wild animals, it is recommended people do not provoke or disturb wildcats in the event of any encounter.

    Occasionally, wildcats are known to take chickens. However, any chickens that are protected from other typical predators such as pine martens, foxes and badgers, will also be protected from the low risk of wildcat predation.

  • Managing threats to Scotland's wildcats

    When did hybridisation start in the UK?

    Data from museum specimens suggests that the hybridisation rate escalated sometime after the 1950s. A key turning point may have been during the 1970-1980s when wildcats lost a key food source after repeated disease outbreaks in the rabbit population, combined with intensive and widespread persecution prior to legal protection in 1988.

    Increases in road traffic and development of roads may have also led to increases in wildcat deaths by vehicles, though it is unclear how important this is. Changes in land management practices, such as intensification of agriculture, and increased use of snaring and lamping (gamekeepers or farmers using a search light on board a vehicle to detect feral cats in the dark, then shooting them) for predator control may also have had an impact on the species in .

    The end result of all this was too few wildcats within a landscape containing too many domestic cats, and hybridisation was the consequence.

    Now that hybridisation has started, curtailing further hybridisation is vital. Greater public awareness about the importance of being a responsible cat owner is crucial and Saving Wildcats encourages pet owners to have their cat microchipped, neutered and vaccinated to help save Scotland’s wildcats as well as improving the health and wellbeing of their pets.

    Will Saving Wildcats cull feral domestic cats in the release site?

    No. As feral domestic cats and hybrids pose a significant risk to wildcats through both hybridisation and disease, they will be controlled using a trap, neuter, vaccinate and return policy.

    In situations where the health of a feral domestic cat is compromised, or if they are considered a disease risk to wildcats, then they will be humanely euthanized by a qualified veterinarian.

    Are wildcats protected by law?

    Yes. The wildcat is protected by national and international legislation.

    Since 1977, Felis silvestris has been included in Appendix II of CITES. The wildcat is listed on Annex IV of the EU Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC and listed in Appendix II of the Bern Convention as a “strictly protected fauna species”.

    Wildcats are also listed as a protected species under Scots law through the Conservation (Natural Habitat, & c.) Regulations of 1994 (as amended), listed in Schedule 2 of these regulations as a “European Protected Species of animal”.

    On 18 March 1988, the wildcat was added to Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 receiving full protection. The species was also added to the revised UK Biodiversity Action Plan list of Priority Species, and Habitats in 2007, to the Scottish Biodiversity List (under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004) as a species of principal importance for biodiversity conservation.

    In 2007, NatureScot included the wildcat on the list of species for priority conservation action under the Species Action Framework because of its decline in distribution and abundance. The wildcat also became a key priority species of the Cairngorms Local Biodiversity Action Plan.

    It is an offence to deliberately or recklessly:

    • capture, injure, kill or harass a wildcat
    • disturb a wildcat in a den or any other structure or place it uses for shelter or protection
    • disturb a wildcat while it is rearing or otherwise caring for its young
    • obstruct access to a den or other structure or place wildcats use for shelter or protection or otherwise deny the animal use of that place
    • disturb a wildcat in a manner or in circumstances likely to significantly affect the local distribution or abundance of the species
    • disturb a wildcat in a manner or in circumstances likely to impair its ability to survive, breed or reproduce, or rear or otherwise care for its young

    It is also an offence to:

    • damage or destroy a breeding site or resting place of such an animal (whether or not deliberately or recklessly)
    • keep, transport, sell or exchange, or offer for sale or exchange any wildcat (or any part or derivative of one) obtained after 10 June 1994
  • Conservation breeding and the vital captive population

    What is a conservation breeding programme?

    Conservation breeding is the captive population management of a species that has a direct role in conservation action. In other words, animals in human care that can help to save their species in the wild.

    When a wild population is regarded as non-viable, like that of wildcats in Scotland, it means that there are simply not enough animals for the population to be self-sustaining. In situations like this, more animals need to be added from another population (known as translocation) or bred in captivity and released if the species is to avoid extinction.

    Using animals from the captive population allows greater control on population sex ratios, age structure and genetic diversity.

    Are all the cats in the breeding programme 'pure' wildcats?

    Data published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Evolutionary Applications in 2019 details the genetic results from the captive population. This shows that the levels of wildcat DNA found in wildcats in captivity in the UK are considerably higher than those found in wild-living cats in Scotland.

    In 2017, all breeding captive wildcats were genetically assessed for levels of hybridisation. Only those that passed the minimum genetic threshold were used for further breeding and most cats in the breeding programme score much higher than the minimum threshold (75% - equivalent to one grandparent as a domestic cat).

    As of October 2019, there were 107 captive wildcats in the breeding programme. In contrast, only two wild-living wildcats from Scotland have passed this minimum threshold in the last five years.

    Has conservation breeding been successful for other recovery projects?

    Yes. Conservation breeding has been used in several successful endangered species recovery projects including black footed ferrets and California condor in North America, Arabian oryx in Oman, Saudi Arabia and Israel, golden lion tamarin in Brazil and European mink in Estonia, to name just a few.

    One of the most successful projects that continues today is the recovery of the Iberian lynx in Spain and Portugal. With conservation breeding centres playing a key role in recovery, the Iberian lynx population has increased from under 100 animals in 2002 to over 650 animals in 2019. The lead partner for this Iberian lynx recovery project is now also a Saving Wildcats partner.

    How is the conservation breeding for release centre different from a zoo?

    The Saving Wildcats Conservation Breeding Centre is a dedicated 'off-show' facility where wildcats can live, breed and be prepared for life in the wild in large, natural enclosures away from human disturbances.

    Our breeding and pre-release enclosures will be situated in a remote, natural area of Highland Wildlife Park where no visitors are allowed. 

  • Scottish Wildcat Action and other wildcat projects

    What happened to Scottish Wildcat Action?

    This project follows on from the work of the Scottish Wildcat Action partnership (2015 - 2020).

    Find out more about the history of wildcat conservation in Scotland

    Find out more about Scottish Wildcat Action

    Will work in the Scottish Wildcat Action Priority Areas end?

    No. The Priority Areas identified during the Scottish Wildcat Action project will still be important sites for continued research and engagement in this next phase of wildcat conservation and recovery.

    An important element of Saving Wildcats is building on the successes of Scottish Wildcat Action and continuing valuable legacies. Many of the same methodologies, techniques and partnerships will be used.

    Any wildcats found in the Priority Areas that meet the required pelage and genetic criteria may be used to strengthen the gene pool of the release population.

    Does Saving Wildcats work with other wildcat projects and specialists?

    Yes. Project partners and staff from Saving Wildcats are represented on a number of global working groups and advisory groups in the field of conservation and reintroduction. The team have collaborated and consulted with other wildcat specialists and projects across Europe.

    Saving Wildcats also has an international advisory group which includes leading specialists in species conservation as well as wildcat behaviour and population management.

    Our lead partner, RZSS, has managed the UK's captive wildcat population since 2015, working with many zoos, wildlife parks and private collections to ensure they have the potential to support conservation efforts. In fact, 2020 was a record breeding year for wildcats with zoos and private holders welcolming wildcat kittens including the Royal Zoological Society’s Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park, as well as Aigas Field Centre, Alladale Wilderness Reserve, Belfast Zoo, British Wildlife Centre, Camperdown Wildlife Centre, Derek Gow and Five Sisters Zoo.

    Is this the first time wildcats will be released in the UK?

    Yes, this project will involve the first planned conservation translocation of wildcats in Britain. It is designed to be in line with the Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations.

    Saving Wildcats is the first wildcat release project in the UK that has secured long-term funding and has an action plan for high capacity release as well as a detailed plan for threat control with support from the national government.

    Discussions are ongoing with other wildcat stakeholders within the UK who are proposing wildcat releases in England and Wales. In principle, we support other wildcat recovery projects that follow a collaborative and best practice approach.

  • Outside our project area

    What will we do about any wildcats found outside the project area?

    Saving Wildcats will continue to undertake some scoping work outside of the project as well as staying engaged with volunteer groups within the Scottish Wildcat Action Priority Areas.

    In the event that potential wildcats are identified in areas outside of the release site, then action will be taken to collect scientific samples from these individuals to assess hybridisation levels, pelage score and disease status.

    If cats are found that pass the pelage and genetic criteria then the Saving Wildcats project team, in discussion with other key parties, will review the best course of action. In situations where these cats are isolated from other wildcats, or where threats remain, there will be potential for translocation to the release site.

    Wildcats occupy relatively large home ranges and the individuals we release as part of the project will inevitably disperse outside of the initial release area, although the chosen release area will be assessed to ensure it is large enough to support a viable population of wildcats.

    All released wildcats will be GPS collared and their movements within and outside the release area closely monitored post-release so that potential risks to the animals can be effectively mitigated. We will also be developing relationships with communities, pet owners, landowners and estates surrounding the release area to make them aware of the project and to ask for their help in protecting and monitoring these animals as they move across the landscape.