Scottish wildcat conservation efforts from Mike Tomkies to Wildcat Haven

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Scottish wildcat myths debunked...


The confusion between pure wildcats and hybrids has led to many myths building up over time, some inadvertently as understanding has improved and old research has been superceded, some on purpose to foster PR attention on particular organisations who want to boast that they're "saving the Scottish wildcat"; a few of the common myths and misunderstandings are outlined and corrected below.

The Cairngorms has been identified as a stronghold for Scottish wildcats / there are 400 pure wildcats in the Cairngorms / there are 150 breeding pairs of wildcats in the Cairngorms

The Cairngorms was identified as a key wildcat stronghold by the Cairngorms National Park Authority based on no research in an application to SNH for money to launch the Cairngorms Wildcat Project / Highland Tiger; a bit like declaring your back garden a wildcat stronghold and using that as justification for being given tens of thousands of pounds to protect them there. A three year camera trapping effort with over 100 cameras grabbed a lot of headlines and led to claims of discovering 400 pure wildcats, or 150 breeding pairs of wildcats.

Independent experts reviewed the evidence and confirmed none of the 'wildcats' were pure wildcats, which is exactly what all the experts expected to be the case prior to the project being funded. In wildcat terms the Cairngorms are a heavily developed region full of the thing they dislike most; us, and the thing that threatens them most; feral cats, it is unlikely they have existed there for decades and, sadly, unlikely they ever will again. Also, wildcats do not form 'breeding pairs', all cats are polygamous during breeding season and solitary the rest of the time.

Wildlife park X has a successful captive breeding project / is about to release wildcats back to the wild

Numerous wildlife parks around the UK will tell you their wildcats are expertly verified as the very best, or that they'll be releasing some into the wild next year, or that a new-born kitten is going to save the species or that some genetic test proves their wildcats are pure.

Due to captive breeders abandoning the studbook prior to 2000 and relying instead on various random individuals to decide which cats to breed to each other the entire captive population is hybridised, a few even meow. If any are released at any time it will simply mean more hybrids in the wild. With the exception of a single cat at Port Lympne wildlife park in Kent no cat has been identified as the best by any real expert, and any mention of genetic tests is a misrepresentation further explained below. Wildlife parks pushing these lines could most benefit the wildcat by admitting the hybridisation and using the hybrids as an opportunity to educate the general public.

Captive cat X has been genetically tested as the best in the world

There are certain claims around that genetics have shown certain captive cats to be off the purity charts and from the strongest genepool any man has ever seen; this is a gross misrepresentation.

Some time ago a geneticist was given some samples of blood by SNH and told they were from pure wildcats, they were actually from a mixture of feral and hybrid cats. Nonetheless he managed to identify a handful of genetic markers which seemed likely to be unique to wildcats and so suggested a genetic test for wildcat purity was possible; considerably more work would be necessary to identify ALL the genetic markers necessary to call a cat pure, and then to verify those results. This research has been misrepresented to the media and public primarily by RZSS as a definitive test for wildcat purity, or the first stages of one; it is not, precisely because it originated from hybrid samples, identified only a handful of the total number of genetic markers and has not been fully verified.

Further, the RZSS developed test utilising this research takes a short cut; it is easier to look at a particular type of genes which are always from the mother, so the test applies this research to those genes, completely ignoring what the father was. As a result, the test that has been used on some captive cats tells us whether any given cat's mother had a handful of genes that may or may not have something to do with wildcat purity. A definitive test has been developed by the University of Chester from a sample of pure wildcat skins and is currently being verified in Wildcat Haven, it has not given any captive cats any kind of hybridisation score as yet.

SNH are spending £2m on wildcat conservation / SNH have £800k from a Lottery grant for wildcats

SNH's recent press has repeatedly talked of spending £2m on their Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan, and a BBC article reported that they had been granted over £800k by the Lottery.

Lottery money can only be spent in a way that benefits the general public, and SNH have previously blocked conservationists from utilising general public volunteers around pure wildcats because of disturbance concerns. As such any Lottery grant can only be spent on things such as education or awareness of wildcats; all very good, but not very useful for actually conserving the Scottish wildcat in the wild, especially if the education focuses on convincing people a hybrid is a pure wildcat.

The £2m figure is plucked from thin air and SNH have no idea where any of it is going to come from; they have the intent to spend it, so long as someone gives it to them. We're planning to spend £2bn on Scottish wildcat conservation as soon as someone gives it to us. Over the last decade SNH has spent about £500k of public money on wildcats, from a budget of over £500m over that time; 0.1%, less than SNH pay the individuals who make up their management team; in fact SNH CEO Ian Jardine is apparently worth twice as much to Scotland as the wildcat is on an average year by year basis.

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