An evidence-based approach to wildcat conservation in Scotland

Saving Wildcats is the next phase of wildcat conservation in Scotland, following on from the work of the Scottish Wildcat Action project, which ended in 2020. Both of these national partnership projects have been, and continue to be, a collaborative effort across a diverse group of wildcat experts, supported by a range of conservation organisations and other vital contributors. 

The experts involved include the ecologists that carried out some of the first field surveys decades ago, those that designed the first camera-trapping protocols and tested them across northern Scotland, museum specialists and other academics, geneticists, naturalists, foresters, and numerous vets, as well as a range of amazing volunteers and countless team members keeping the projects running.

There is some worrying misinformation about wildcat conservation, including concerns that there have not been enough rigorous wildcat surveys in Scotland. This  has led some people to conclude that wildcats being declared 'functionally extinct' and our subsequent population restoration project are premature. However, this is just not the case. The contrary is evident in the extensive survey literature from the past decade, all of which was comprehensively reviewed by the Breitenmoser et al. (2019) report.

Briefly, Breitenmoser et al. (2019) is a comprehensive review and assessment of conservation activity for Scottish wildcats by representatives from the Cat Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It was written by some of the world’s leading cat conservation specialists. The report was commissioned by the Scottish Wildcat Action Steering Group in 2018 after three years of extensive survey data failed to find significant evidence of wildcats remaining in Scotland. 

There have also been assertions that large-scale camera trapping, allowing pelage scoring (assessing a potential wildcat based on its coat markings) to be applied more widely and effectively has only recently become a practical proposition, and that there have been no studies that have applied these more effective techniques rigorously at national scale. This is factually incorrect, and we’d like to highlight the peer-reviewed evidence: 

Dr Kerry Kilshaw, at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), first developed the use of camera-trap surveys for wildcats in Scotland, and subsequently used the technique to conduct wild-living cat surveys across the entirety of northern Scotland (23 sites). Dr Kilshaw went on to publish her PhD Thesis on this topic in 2015. Her estimate of wildcat population size used by Scottish Wildcat Action is based on extensive national camera-trap survey data that uses the pelage scoring method developed by Dr Andrew Kitchener of National Museums Scotland.  

Here are just a few of her publications, all of which are available online:

  1. Kilshaw, K., Montgomerey, R.A., Campbell, R.D., Hetherington, D.A., Johnson, P.J., Kitchener, A.C., Macdonald, D.W. and Millspaugh, J.J. (2016). Mapping the spatial configuration of hybridization risk for an endangered population of the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) in Scotland. Mammal Research 61(1), 1-11. This publication includes data from an additional 4 sites collected as part of the Cairngorms Wildcat Project.
  2. Kilshaw, K. (2015). Introgression and the current status of the Scottish wildcat. DPhil, University of Oxford, pp 232.
  3. Kilshaw, K., Johnson, P.J., Kitchener, A.C. and Macdonald, D.W. (2014) Detecting the elusive Scottish wildcat Felis silvestris silvestris using camera trapping. Oryx 01/2014
  4. Silva, P., Kilshaw, K., Johnson, P.J., Macdonald D.W. and Rosalino, L.M. (2013). Wildcat occurrence in Scotland: food really matters. Diversity and Distributions, 19(2):232–243
  5. Silva, P., Rosalino, L.M., Johnson, P.J., Macdonald D.W., Anderson, N. and K. Kilshaw (2013). Local-level determinants of wildcat occupancy in Northeast Scotland. European Journal of Wildlife Research, 59(3):449-453
  6. Kilshaw, K. (2011). The Scottish Wildcat: Naturally Scottish Series. SNH publication. pp. 58
  7. Kilshaw, K. & Macdonald, D. W. (2011) The use of camera trapping as a method to survey for the Scottish wildcat. Scottish Natural Heritage Report 479. 

The next important publication is the Cairngorms Wildcat Project Report 2009-2012 (Hetherington and Campbell, 2012).  

This project was, in its own words, a “practical trial of targeted conservation actions”, deliberately focused on the Cairngorms National Park. The surveys, which took place across five estates, complemented Dr Kilshaw’s wider national survey effort by focusing on the Cairngorms and following the same systematic methodology. The Cairngorms National Park may only be one area within northern Scotland, but it is the largest national park in the UK (1,748 square miles) and of significant importance in terms of wildcats, because it contains relatively high amounts of suitable habitat and was considered a potential population stronghold. Unfortunately, the surveys concluded that wildcats were “very rare”, even a decade ago.  

We must also mention the national surveys carried out by NatureScot, known then as Scottish Natural Heritage, in 2013-14 at nine sites across northern Scotland, using the camera-trap methodology developed by Dr Kilshaw. Again, this information is available online, published as 'Survey and scoping of wildcat priority areas', Littlewood et al. (2014).

NatureScot also commissioned a study by Dr Scott Newey, a population ecologist at the James Hutton Institute in 2014, which assessed optimal design for wildcat camera-trap surveys: Newey, S.; Potts, J.; Irvine, R.J. (2015) Simulation study to inform the design of wildcat camera trap monitoring protocols., Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No. 899. 

But the most extensive surveys of all were the most recent: the camera-trap surveys run by Scottish Wildcat Action between 2015-2020 in six ‘Wildcat Priority Areas’ across northern Scotland.

It is worth noting that those six Priority Areas were chosen from nine locations, based on the prior survey work carried out by Littlewood et al. (2014) that showed little or no evidence of wildcat presence in most potential sites. The areas selected all had some recent evidence of ‘wildcat’ presence (where a wildcat is defined using a pelage score threshold). They were the largest camera trap surveys ever carried out for wildcats worldwide and remain the largest systematic camera surveys in Scotland (80-140 camera traps spaced 1.5km apart across suitable wildcat habitat for 60 days – based on the recommendations from Newey et al. 2015). 

The surveys followed the methodology developed by Dr Kilshaw (with the exception that one camera was used per camera station, rather than two, to allow greater geographical coverage) and were conducted annually/biannually over winter in all six Priority Areas. The Priority Areas were all between 100-450km2 in size, the largest being the Morvern peninsula on the west coast.

Surveys repeatedly identified no phenotypic wildcats. Not only that, Scottish Wildcat Action collected genetic data from roadkill cats across the whole of northern Scotland, and from trapped cats (caught during trap-neuter-release programmes of feral domestic cats) within Priority Areas.  Scottish Wildcat Action also collected public sightings data for five years, and continue to do so via iRecord.  Furthermore,   Scottish Wildcat Action partners invested over 10,000 camera-trap nights, at 268 camera locations, surveying over 30 other areas outside of the six Wildcat Priority Areas. Only three possible wildcats were identified in the process.

After assessing all the data collected during the five-year period, from camera trap surveys, genetic work, public sightings, and roadkill analysis, Scottish Wildcat Action did not find evidence of significant, viable wildcat populations. The lack of any wildcats was so alarming that the project partners commissioned the IUCN to review the conservation activity while the project was still ongoing, because they could no longer justify the in-situ conservation measures, which were designed to protect existing wildcat populations, when there was so little evidence of any wildcats remaining. This information is all described in the report by Breitenmoser et al. (2019) and will be detailed in forthcoming reports from Scottish Wildcat Action. 

Finally, we’d like to refer to the current status of the remaining ‘wildcat’ population. This is clearly illustrated by this recent exhaustive genetic analysis by Senn et al. (2019), also referenced by Breitenmoser et al. (2019) and freely available online.

This study analyses genetic data from hundreds of samples dating from across the past century and conclusively demonstrates that the wild-living cat population is a ‘hybrid swarm’. It also highlights that there have been no 'wildcats' identified in field samples from the past decade that reach the genetic threshold required to be considered a wildcat as opposed to a hybrid.  

We appreciate that this blog is lengthy and contains a lot of detail on publications, but we felt it was necessary to be thorough in highlighting the extensive research efforts that laid the foundations for the Saving Wildcats project.

Misleading information significantly undermines the urgency of genuine wildcat conservation efforts by perpetuating the myth that “wildcats are still out there; we just haven’t looked hard enough”.

Yes, there may still be some wild-living wildcats in Scotland, but it is extremely unlikely that there is a viable population remaining hidden. This is a very sad reality to face, but our project offers hope for the wildcat as we work towards restoring this iconic species to Scotland, through captive breeding and release.  

We understand that there is a lot of media information about wildcat conservation in Scotland, some of which can be confusing, particularly when misleading or factually incorrect information is shared. So, for anyone who would like us to elaborate on anything we’ve discussed, or those who have any further questions about wildcat conservation efforts, past or present, please do get in touch with us directly. 

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