Friday, 21 February 2014

Ardnamurchan Wildcat Project

There was a time, some fifty or more years ago, when wildcats on Ardnamurchan and, for that matter, across large areas of the Highlands, were so common, and such a threat to poultry, that they were treated as vermin. Today, most visitors and locals know that they are here, but few have seen them - and that's because, for reasons that are complex, the wildcat population has plummeted. The grim fact is that the pure, unhybridised Scottish wildcat is teetering on the edge of extinction. Recent estimates put the number of true wildcats at around a hundred and perhaps as few as 35, making it one of the world's rarest cats.

Dr Paul O'Donoghue, a biologist at the University of Chester, has done a great deal of work on creating a genetic test to identify a pure-bred wildcat - see article here. But, as another BBC article here suggests, the emphasis on finding and preserving the Scottish wildcat has been concentrated in places like the Cairngorms National Park. The trouble is that, with the large number of domestic cats both within and around the park, and real problems with the numbers of feral cats, the National Park's wildcats are likely to be far from pure. As a result, Paul O'Donoghue has sent a team of veterinary surgeons to carry out fieldwork in places that are most likely to harbour true wildcats - which is why they're now working on Ardnamurchan and Morvern.

Tom Williams and James Cavanagh are veterinary surgeons who have been here on-and-off for some months, doing two things. Firstly, they have been going door-to-door finding all the domestic cats on Ardnamurchan and checking to see that they are not a threat to local breeding wildcats. What they have found has thrilled them. Ardnamurchan, thanks to the work of the local Cats' Protection League and the general support of residents, has few domestic cats that aren't neutered, and even fewer feral cats, which convinces him that the local wildcat population is likely to be amongst the purest in Scotland. James said, “It’s very clear people here really are responsible cat owners.”

Tom is passionate about the need to control feral cats. He says, "I predict that conservationists, scientists and government will wake up to the ecological threat of feral cats. This non native super predator living and breeding in the wild will go on to threaten other species as well as the wildcat. There will be a need to identify owned pets from feral cats and the only reliable practical way of doing this is with good quality microchips." So the team is offering to insert microchips, for free, into our domestic cats if the owner so wishes.

The second thing they have been doing is trying to find the remaining local wildcats. They've had successes, such as some very definite local reports, and they have evidence from scat - the faeces of wildcats. They, and others who have been helping them, have also been setting trail cameras in likely places, but these have, so far, recorded plenty of fox and pine martens, but no cats.

Now Tom and James and the rest of the team are appealing for local help. They want anyone whom they have not visited, but who has a cat, to contact them. We've done that and, as a bonus, Tom gave our ageing cats a quick health check - we now know that one of them has arthritis. But the emphasis is now on asking everyone to report any sightings of wildcats direct to them. They are also asking for any other evidence, such as scat (picture above), tracks and, if people have more success than they, clips from trail cams, to be logged with them. We're coming into the wildcats' breeding season, so everyone needs to act with care.

There's now a permanent box in the right-hand column of this blog with information about wildcats.

Tom Williams has agreed to act as the link to the Ardnamurchan community - please contact him on 07531 407 939 or

Photo of wildcat taken by Helen Haden at the British Wildlife Centre, and reproduced under the Creative Commons licence - for which, many thanks Helen. Her picture, and her Flickr photo stream, are here.

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