A vital partnership to restore Scotland’s wildcat population has received a funding boost, with a £400,000 Scottish Government grant to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.
Led by the wildlife conservation charity and based at Highland Wildlife Park, the Saving Wildcats project aims to prevent the extinction of the critically endangered species by breeding and releasing wildcats into the wild.
A report published in 2019 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Cat Specialist Group concluded there is no longer a viable wildcat population living wild in Scotland.
Funding for the project has been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced the closures of Highland Wildlife Park and Edinburgh Zoo, costing RZSS over £1.5 million.
RZSS has also received an additional £278,000 from the Scottish Government’s zoo and aquarium conservation fund to ensure efforts can continue to protect other threatened native species, including the pine hoverfly, pond mud snail and flapper skate.
Dr Helen Senn, Head of Conservation and Science Programmes at RZSS, said, “Every visit to Highland Wildlife Park and Edinburgh Zoo supports our work to protect threatened species around the world, including on our doorstep in the Cairngorms National Park.
“The past year has been an incredibly difficult time for our charity, with the closure of our parks for a total of five months cutting off our main source of income.
“While we still face significant financial pressures, this £678,000 Scottish Government funding to help protect native species and support our work with partners is very welcome.”
Saving Wildcats is a partnership between RZSS, NatureScot, the Cairngorms National Park Authority, Forestry and Land Scotland, as well as European partners Norden’s Ark from Sweden and Spain’s Junta De Andalucía, which have led the successful recovery of the Iberian lynx.
The six-year project is supported by £3.2 million of EU funding. It is also co-funded by Scotland’s nature agency NatureScot and a wide variety of partners.
Conservation experts are hopeful the first wildcats can be released in 2023, with potential locations being explored in the Cairngorms.
“On top of the funding concerns, the project team have had to meet a series of practical challenges,” said Dr Senn.
“These included delays to the construction of the breeding for release centre at Highland Wildlife Park, caused by the pandemic and severe winter weather. The breeding facility is now up and running in a secluded, off-show area at Highland Wildlife Park.
“Releasing carnivores to the wild is incredibly complex but we are planning to release the first wildcats in 2023, which will be very exciting.”
Dr Jo Judge, CEO of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) said, “It is fantastic to have Scottish Government supporting the ground-breaking work of Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park.
“The proposed reintroductions are the culmination of decades of work conserving this species, including breeding, education and scientific work with many zoos and other partners working together.
“The iconic Scottish wildcat is on the very brink of extinction, but with support we can avoid a future without wildcats.”
Wildcat supporters can find out more about Saving Wildcats and donate to help save the species at savingwildcats.org.uk