There are as little as 300 of the iconic Scottish wildcat left living in the wild
A landmark breeding centre aimed at saving the critically endangered Scottish wildcat has officially opened in the Highlands.
The first of its kind in Scotland, the centre at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s (RZSS) Highland Wildlife Park, near Kingussie, contains special breeding enclosures.
Wildcats born in captivity and a select number of wild-caught cats are being introduced into the large, naturalistic enclosures hidden from public view with the hope they will breed.
RZSS Highland Wildlife Park has an essential role to play in ensuring that one of our most endangered mammals has a long-term future in Scotland
It is hoped the facility, which has already seen the birth of two litters, will play a crucial role in boosting the numbers of the iconic cat with experts saying they fear there are now less than 300 surviving in the wild.
The centre plays a major part in a national project to save the species that is being delivered by Scottish Wildcat Action.
It brings together more than 20 organisations, including RZSS, in the conservation, scientific and land management communities and is supported by Scottish Government and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Roseanna Cunningham MSP, cabinet secretary for the environment, has officially opened the new breeding enclosures and lent her support to the project while on a visit to the wildlife park.
“It is fantastic to see so many organisations coming together to save the iconic Scottish wildcat,” she said.
“Through a combination of direct action in six priority areas, RZSS’s pioneering conservation breeding programme, and ongoing surveying and monitoring, Scottish Wildcat Action represents the best chance the wildcat has of surviving in the long term.”
The Scottish wildcat, with their big, bushy, black-ringed tail and tenacious behaviour, is one of the rarest cat species in the world and is critically endangered in the wild.
Conservationist say the biggest threats to the population are interbreeding with feral domestic cats, disease and accidental persecution and are aiming to create six safe areas for the species.
They say its long-term future relies on local people reporting sightings of any cats living in the wild, volunteering and spreading the word about the conservation challenge facing the species.
Barbara Smith, acting chief executive of conservation charity the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), said: “We are grateful to the cabinet secretary and the Scottish Government for their support at this critically important time for the Scottish wildcat.
“The off-show conservation breeding programme at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park has an essential role to play in ensuring that one of our most endangered mammals has a long-term future in Scotland.
“We are committed to working closely with our partners in Scottish Wildcat Action to tackle the multiple threats facing the species in the wild.”
Eileen Stuart, head of policy and advice for Scottish Natural Heritage and the chair of Scottish Wildcat Action, said: “The support of Scottish Government will be crucial if we are to succeed in saving the Scottish wildcat.
“With the formal opening of the conservation breeding enclosures today, and having recently concluded the largest ever survey into the Scottish wildcat, Scottish Wildcat Action is taking the necessary steps to safeguard the species from extinction.”