Scottish wildcat conservation efforts from Mike Tomkies to Wildcat Haven

Visit the Wildcat Haven project website Learn all about the Scottish wildcat Report a sighting of a wildcat The Scottish Wildcat Association is now Wildcat Haven

Scottish wildcat conservation efforts...


There are two distinct conservation efforts currently in progress for Scottish wildcats, each of which collects together numerous experts and conservation organisations. There is some crossover of expertise between each effort however a divide has been present for some time where one effort seeks to save the pure Scottish wildcat, and the other side wants to make do with a hybrid that looks similar. Captive breeding has always stood somewhat seperate to these efforts but is increasingly beginning to divide into the two camps over the same issues of definition.

Wildcat Haven logo

Wildcat Haven
Wildcat Haven is an effort put together by a range of feline conservation experts from around the world which has been operating in the field since 2008 focusing on areas where pure wildcats appear to survive, all of which are in the West Highlands. It focuses on removing feral cats through neutering and studies wildcat genetics and feline diseases through blood samples taken from live-trapped cats. It is the only effort licensed to live trap and sample Scottish wildcats and is currently in the verification stages of a definitive genetic test for wildcat purity.

Wildcat Haven works closely with the local community receiving considerable support from landowners, local businesses and the general public, though the project is majority financed by grant giving organisations in the USA, private sponsorships and donations from the international general public. To date over 250 square miles of remote Highlands has been identified as feral cat free and the project expects to expand to at least 500 square miles over the next few years and explore opportunities to relocate pure wildcats from other parts of Scotland into this protected region.

SNH logo

SNH Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan
SNH lead an alternative effort bringing together many of the larger Scottish conservation groups, they are currently surveying for wildcats using a peer-discredited methodology and have committed to conserving a wildcat with a "relaxed" definition, ie a hybrid. The steering group meets regularly to discuss how to finance whatever it is they may eventually do, and almost two years of effort has produced a three page "action plan" and, finally, some Lottery money which can only be used for things such as public awareness and education rather than direct scientific research or actions such as feral cat neutering, hence it will pay to convince the next generation that any brown tabby is a pure Scottish wildcat.

The wildcat has been defined as critically endangered for over a decade and to date, the only group involved in the action plan to actually deal with any threat are Cats Protection, in their ongoing efforts to neuter or home ferals, these efforts were funded by Cats Protection. The conservation groups have worked through around 500,000 of public funds acheiving a great deal of positive publicity pretending wildcats are still resident in the Cairngorms National Park, around which most of the organisations are situated.

Captive breeding
Numerous cats are held in captivity however all of them are hybridised and none are due to be released into the wild at any time in spite of what many wildlife parks claim. Studbook holders the Aspinall Foundation are currently focused on developing captive facilities alongside the Wildcat Haven project to support injured or sick wildcats that turn up from time to time, or to act as a relocation centre for bringing pure wildcats into Haven that have been found elsewhere. With the establishment of the safe haven area, it appears there is little need for long term captivity of these animals anymore.

The other major wildcat-breeding park is RZSS's Highland Wildlife Park which has developed a very un-definitive genetics test which is often misrepresented as definitive to give the impression one, some or all of their wildcats are pure, none are. Various other wildlife parks hold wildcat hybrids but are not closely involved with either effort.

Whilst this divide in effort is unfortunate, numerous efforts to resolve it have failed; Wildcat Haven supporters refuse to simply give up on the pure wildcat when so little of the landscape has been surveyed for them, and SNH supporters have failed to provide a clear reason why they are content to settle on a hybridised wildcat and won't just adopt and reproduce the well developed, affordable, humane and successful Wildcat Haven action plan.

Historical conservation efforts

Mike Tomkies pictured in 2005 from the film Last of the Scottish Wildcats

1970s; Mike Tomkies (pictured right) can take much of the credit for inspiring modern conservation efforts. Writing several books about his experiences raising orphaned wildcat kittens at his remote Highlands cottage, he helped destroy the many myths still circulating about wildcats being savage man-killers, and promoted respect and understanding of the species. He also made the first efforts to study hybridisation, looking at many skins collected in museums and noting the gradual impact hybridisation was having on the size and patterning of wildcats over the years.

1980-1990s; Legal protection became a topic as science gradually began to take Tomkies' work seriously and by the late 80s many conservationists were concerned for the status of the wildcat and protection legislation was put in place. Unfortunately it was poorly formed, failing to describe a wildcat in a world where the issues of hybridisation and identification were becoming clear. Things really took a tumble early in the 90s at Stonehaven court when Scottish Natural Heritage attempted to prosecute a gamekeeper for shooting wildcats. The "expert" they produced said he couldn't tell if the animals in question were wildcats or not and the gamekeeper successfully argued that if an expert couldn't tell the difference, how was he supposed to?

Oxford University WildCRU logo

1990s-2000s; WildCRU at Oxford University pulled together a range of research experts and began pushing for further investigation to better understand the wildcat and hybridisation. They were involved in an SNH managed study that came to the conclusion the wildcat was already extinct, then the same group carried out a virtually identical study independently of SNH coming to the conclusion that it wasn't. Driven by Professor David MacDonald at WildCRU and Dr Andrew Kitchener at National Museums of Scotland, a series of studies defined hybridisation by coat patterns (otherwise called pelage criteria) and affirmed a belief that pure wildcats still survived and probably numbered around 400 individuals.

In 2005 the team put together a detailed action plan to establish safe havens called Special Areas of Wildcat Conservation where surviving groups of wildcats could be protected via controls of feral cats. The plan also called for a re-write of protection legislation to properly define exactly what was protected and prevent any further human persecution. Unfortunately, Scottish Natural Heritage refused to licence, finance or otherwise take the WildCRU action plan or legislative recommendations forward.

Allan Paul pictured in 2005 from the film Last of the Scottish Wildcats

2000s; Allan Paul (pictured right), a concerned member of the public, volunteered himself to get involved in the captive breeding program and discovered a shambles. The same SNH wildcat expert from the Stonehaven case had taken an active role in breeding a large number of heavily hybridised wildcats and no one had made an effort to keep the studbook up to date detailing which cats lived where and how they were related. Allan spent the next seven years pulling the records back together and worked with Dr Kitchener to have the levels of hybridisation graded. A handful of the cats were deemed sufficient to breed from just to ensure there was something approaching a wildcat in captivity, but most of them were closely related and it gradually emerged that the current captive breeding effort could have no effect on the pure wildcat and very little effect on a next-best option.

Scottish Wildcat Association logo

Late 2000s; Scottish Wildcat Association was the first charity to emerge dedicated to the wildcat, set up largely by film director Steve Piper who had spent two years making a documentary on wildcats getting to know many of the key figures involved in the effort. He brought together a range of experts to begin developing a streamlined, lower cost action plan from the 2005 WildCRU effort. The Wildcat Haven project emerged identifying a key wildcat habitat and beginning efforts to neuter feral cats across 200 square miles of remote West Highlands. The Association also worked to improve captive breeding facilities and worked closely with national media to raise general awareness of wildcats and build pressure on SNH to start doing something useful in the field.

Highland Tiger logo

Late 2000s; Highland Tiger and the Cairngorms Wildcat Project were effectively a single effort established by two conservationists originally working with the SWA but wanting to take a different direction avoiding captive breeding improvement, culling rather than neutering feral cats and seeking funding from SNH. Highland Tiger was primarily a partnership between the Cairngorms National Park Authority and RZSS, with SNH providing funding under provision that they only work inside the Cairngorms National Park and not carry out any actual field conservation work. SNH then threw a 'wildcat conference' in a 5 star hotel, pretended to listen to the opinion of various conservationists and rural stakeholders then launched the project exactly as originally conceived.

Pressure from Cats Protection forced the feral cat cull off the cards and the project spent the next three years raising awareness of wildcats and sighting hundreds of camera traps around the national park. The complete absence of any pure wildcats in the region meant that they adopted a 'relaxed' description of a wildcat; anything that looked a bit like one was logged as one. This led to a flurry of media reports on lost populations of wildcats being found accompanied by photos of obviously hybridised cats and repeat claims that captive bred hybrids were saving the species. The project wrapped up using public donations to pay for an RZSS employee to carry out non-peer reviewed research concluding the project had increased the number of wildcats in the region to at least 400 individuals purely by taking photos of hybrid cats. A short while later the project presented their wildcats to some real experts who confirmed that none of them were wildcats.

A request to SNH to continue funding for the project was refused, however RZSS continue to maintain a blog and website and accept donations from the general public, and the new SNH Wildcat Action Plan is gearing up to do much the same as Highland Tiger did; try to convince tourists the Cairngorms are full of pure wildcats.

Steve Piper, founder of the SWA and the Wildcat Haven project

2010s; Wildcat Haven Early field trials of the SWA action plan, funded by US grant organisations, a Chinese business sponsor and the SWA, were successful and over a period of almost two years of effort a license was finally granted from SNH to more actively progress work with the wildcats. Realising that the SWA was an unwieldy structure to drive forward the fieldwork SWA and WH founder Steve Piper (pictured right) began to look towards handing the project over to experienced conservationists working within a new organisation.

Dr Paul O'Donoghue, chief scientist on the Wildcat Haven project

Dr Paul O'Donoghue (pictured right) from the University of Chester had become involved initially to develop a functional genetic test for wildcat purity and had continued to get more and more involved in the actual fieldwork. Over a period of two years Piper handed over to O'Donoghue who established a dedicated Wildcat Haven organisation in early 2014, as it first emerged that feral cats appeared to have effectively been removed from the area; all ferals being found were already neutered and no kittens were being seen. Funding continues primarily from the US but also from commercial sponsors and the project is now focusing on expanding the feral-free zone, verifying the definitive genetics test for hybridisation, establishing in-situ captive breeding facilities and verifying that the pure Scottish wildcat still exists.

2010s; SNH Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan Announced with much fanfare in 2012 the SNH action plan rolls on from Highland Tiger with many of the same organisations involved and a few new hangers on. After almost two years a steering group meets every couple of months and talks about things. So far they have decided they will focus on conserving "cats which look like wildcats, but may not all be genetically pure wildcats", ensuring that any pure or near pure wildcats that remain will ultimately be hybridised down to the lowest common denominator, that denomination appears to be around 70% purity. Currently seeking Lottery money which cannot actually be used for direct fieldwork conservation of pure wildcats, the plan seems set to work primarily as a PR exercise for the groups involved and the Cairngorms National Park.

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