Last year was an incredible year for Saving Wildcats, and Scotland’s critically endangered wildcats are set to make a return to the wild this summer!
Our first breeding season exceeded all expectations. At the start of the year, 16 cats were paired together at the conservation centre. Of those, six couples successfully gave birth to litters of adorable, but no less wild, kittens – with 22 young wildcats starting the programme off to a flying start, offering a great base for the years ahead.
Before any of the young wildcats can be released, they need to learn how to live in the wild. Keepers and volunteers have been hard at work to create 20 pre-release enclosures. These even larger and more natural areas offer the space and environment the wildcats need to prepare for a challenging life in the wild, while giving the team the chance to monitor their progress via CCTV. There, the kittens will be presented with plenty of opportunities to hone their natural behaviours.
The field team have been busy scoping out the areas where the wildcats will soon roam free, with a series of surveys and studies. After setting more than 90 camera traps around the Cairngorms, the team have now analysed over 700,000 images to monitor potential prey species, and the presence of any wild-living domestic cats.
One of the greatest threats facing wildcats is interbreeding with domestic cats, diluting the gene pool. Thankfully, extensive surveys of potential release sites show very few feral cats living in the area, meaning the risk of hybridisation should be relatively low.
It’s not just wildlife that lives in the Cairngorms – we have human neighbours too, and we’ve been engaging with the community, holding a series of meetings with landowners, farmers and cat owners, together with key organisations such as Cats Protection, to share the next steps in our plans and make sure everyone understands the role they can play.
We’ve even hosted a celebrity supporter, when Dermot O’Leary visited the team and sponsored Fruin, one of the wildcats in our conservation breeding for release centre.
2022 was a great year for Saving Wildcats and 2023 brings plenty of promise, though it will not be without its trials and tribulations. Restoring a species in the wild is an enormous and complex task and there will be many challenges along the way.
The first year is always a vulnerable time for animals and sadly one of the kittens in the centre was unable to recover from a bacterial infection in December. At nine months old, he was living with his brother in a separate enclosure from his mum and sister as they were growing up fast. The project’s expert vets confirmed the illness was not preventable or contagious, and the rest of the family are doing well.
The second year of the breeding programme is now getting started. The male wildcats, separated in December, are soon to be reunited with the females – with absence making feline hearts grow fonder too! We’re hopeful for another successful breeding season, and can’t wait for the pitter patter of more tiny paws.
Most excitingly, with preparations for the first releases underway, the first group of wildcats are getting ready to go wild this summer.
All of this is possible because of our project's partners, members of our community, sponsors and supporters.