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Fresh hope for Scottish wildcat with two new litters

This news post is over 7 years old

The Highland Wildlife Park has announced the birth of two litters of the endangered Scottish wildcat

They're absolutely adorable looking, but don't be tempted to tickle them under the chin - because despite appearances Highland Wildlife Park's newest arrivals are more tiger than tabby.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) announced the birth of two full litters of rare Scottish wildcat kittens at Highland Wildlife Park this week. The far from domesticated youngsters are set to play a vital role in the conservation of the species and may eventually be released into the wild.

Also known as the Highland Tiger, the Scottish wildcat is facing the very real threat of extinction due to hybridisation with domestic and feral cats, habitat loss and accidental persecution.

The birth of these two litters will therefore play an important role in Scotland's coordinated conservation efforts, including a conservation breeding programme for eventual release.

The birth of these rare kittens is not just another boost for the captive breeding programme but for the conservation of this magnificent native species as a whole - David Barclay RZSS

The kittens are a couple of months old and have spent their entire lives so far safely tucked up in their dens. Over the last few days, however, they have been venturing out more and displaying playful behaviour that is delighting park visitors while also important for learning key behaviours.

David Barclay, RZSS cat conservation project officer, said: “The birth of these rare kittens is not just another boost for the captive breeding programme but for the conservation of this magnificent native species as a whole. Through our work with Scottish Wildcat Action, we are doing everything we can to save the Scottish wildcat from extinction and the safety net of the captive breeding programme is becoming more and more vital as wild populations continue to decline.

“We have recently developed an off-show breeding facility for the wildcats, one of the largest of its kind in the world for small cats. Through the conservation breeding and pre-release training programme we will eventually use captive born wildcats to carry out reintroductions across Scotland.”

Although some similarities with domestic tabby cats exist, the two species are not to be confused. The Scottish wildcat is a unique and isolated sub population of the wildcat that is found in continental Europe, which has been separated from them since the end of the last ice age over 9,000 years ago.

Domestic cats originate from Near Eastern African wildcats and have been through a process of domestication.

Wildcats prefer to live alone but will come together for a short period for breeding, normally giving birth to two or three kittens, which the mother will protect fiercely.

With their big, bushy, black-ringed tail and tenacious behaviour it is no surprise that the Scottish wildcat was used historically in many Highland clan crests. The Scottish wildcat is one of the rarest cat species in the world and is critically endangered in the wilds of Scotland.

Thanks to Scottish Wildcat Action, the only national action plan for the species, the future is starting to look brighter for this iconic species. The combination of in-situ conservation with landowner and local community engagement, plus a dedicated conservation breeding for release programme, is providing real hope for the future of the species.

RZSS Highland Wildlife Park has a strong track record in breeding the Scottish wildcat, helping to maintain a healthy captive population and establishing a conservation breeding for release programme, which will be critical in securing the future of Scotland’s last remaining native cat species.

RZSS is a key partner in Scottish Wildcat Action, which brings together more than 20 other organisations in the conservation, scientific and land management communities.

RZSS is leading on the conservation breeding for release aspect of the project. This will be accomplished with the help of newly built off-show breeding enclosures for Scottish wildcats at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park.

The pioneering breeding programme will see a combination of wildcats born in captivity and a select number of wild-caught cats housed in large, naturalistic enclosures, breeding to produce offspring for reintroductions.

As the enclosures are off-show, it will ensure the cats do not become accustomed to people or traffic, thereby maintaining the natural behaviours necessary for their survival in the wild.