The wildcat has been genetically swamped by domestic moggies
One of Scotland’s most iconic species is effectively extinct, a conservation charity has said.
The wildcat has been genetically swamped by domestic moggies – so much so that there are hardly any pure animals left.
Conservation experts at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland have demonstrated the extent of hybridisation within the wild population of Scottish wildcats in a new study.
A paper published in the journal of evolutionary applications concludes that very few Scottish wildcats living in the wild meet the genetic or physical standards used to tell the difference between a wildcat and a hybrid.
While this makes it effectively extinct in the wild as a pure-bred species, there are some pure animals surviving in captivity.
Dr Helen Senn, the charity’s head of conservation and science, said, “The Scottish wildcat is one of the most endangered mammals in the UK and we are working with our partners to try to give this iconic species a future.
“Crossbreeding with domestic feral cats has long been known to be a major threat to the Scottish wildcat.
“Having tested almost 300 wild-living and captive wildcats, we now have genetic data which confirms our belief that the vast majority of Scottish wildcats living in the wild are hybrids to one extent or another.
“While it is disappointing to see such high levels of hybridisation in the wild, it is encouraging that the genetic pool within the captive population is much stronger.”
Scottish Wildcat Action, the national conservation partnership which includes more than 20 members across Scotland, has commissioned a review by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which will recommend further measures to be taken to help protect the species.
Chairman of the Scottish Wildcat Action Steering Group, Allan Bantick OBE, said, “We welcome Dr Helen Senn’s research report on the extent of hybridisation between Scottish wildcats and domestic cats. It provides the project with vital information with which to inform our ongoing conservation work.
“It is another example of the Scottish Wildcat Action partnership producing credible, scientific and constructive evidence from its work. This and other research carried out by the project has been shared with the world’s leading cat scientists from the IUCN cat specialist group, who we have asked to independently evaluate the work of our project and make recommendations.
“We want to ensure we have the best information and advice going forward so that we can preserve the Scottish wildcat for future generations.”
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park recently welcomed a litter of wildcat kittens born in a specially designed habitat which is not on view to the public to retain the cats’ wild instincts.
The charity’s breeding programme is supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.