Scottish Wildcat Action – Delivering a Partnership Project

This is a short version of the article. To gain a more in depth insight into how the project was designed and the science behind the research, in addition to photographs of wildcats from the first formal project field survey, please read the full version here

Scottish Wildcat Action is an ambitious conservation project launched to implement ‘The Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan’. The action plan identifies the best remaining areas for wildcats and conservation strategies to ensure the preservation of viable populations in the future.

More than twenty major organisations have signed up to the plan and were actively involved in its design. Scientific research has underpinned the design and remains a key ongoing process, as there is much still to be discovered about the wildcat.

I have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to do a three month internship with the project working as a volunteer field assistant during the first winter survey.

Species Profile: The Scottish Wildcat 

Geographically separated from the European Wildcat for around 8000 years, the Scottish wildcat Felis silvestris was once found across the whole of the United Kingdom. Woodland clearance, the rise of intensively managed shooting estates and the arrival and increase of domestic cats combined to reduce their range to northern Scotland. Today, a full population census is unavailable due to the elusive nature of the species and the prevalence of hybridisation with domestic cats. Recent estimates suggest there could be between 100 and 300 left in the wild.

Adapted to a less forested landscape in comparison to the European wildcat, studies have shown that the Scottish wildcat favours a mixture of different habitats. For example, grassland and gorse scrub are important for hunting due to the numbers of small mammals and rabbits they contain, whilst dense forest provides denning opportunities and shelter. Upland areas are less favourable; meaning the population density in areas dominated by moorland and mountainous habitats is very low.

Classic profile of a Scottish wildcat (Peter Cairns).

Classic profile of a Scottish wildcat (Peter Cairns).

Communicating Conservation

For a project to receive public support, effective communication is crucial. This can be done in many ways, from a simple poster to social media. I asked the communications coordinator for the project, Vicky MacDonald, a few questions about her role:

What was your career background that led to your role as communications coordinator for Scottish Wildcat Action?

I have seven years’ experience working in communications within the charity sector as well as running my own social enterprise. Scottish Wildcat Action was looking for a self-starter who could bring new ideas to a highly demanding project so I was lucky enough to be selected for the position.

How would you describe your role within the project?

I coordinate the communications for the project including the website, social media, PR/press work and internal communications. This involves a lot of relationship-building, whether that’s with journalists or with media teams from the partner organisations who have signed up to the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan. 

What are the biggest challenges you face on a day to day basis?

Scottish Wildcat conservation is complex and therefore very challenging to communicate in a way that is easy-to-understand.

Which key skills would you identify as being crucial to success in this type of role?

Key skills include being able to work collaboratively with many different types of people through good negotiation skills, attention to detail and resilience.

The wildcat is a well-known species amongst people who already have knowledge of natural history. What methods do you use to target and educate new audiences about the Scottish Wildcat to inspire them to help save it?

We are about to launch an awareness raising campaign which will target pet cat owners from all walks of life, particularly those that live in a wildcat priority area. I believe the key to success will be to make this a positive campaign that links people’s pride in their local area with an action they can take to help protect the wildcats that live there.

Key Project Actions

The following six strategies are the main areas the project will focus on to help halt the decline and recover Scottish Wildcat populations.

  1. Designated Priority Areas

It was logical to find the strongest areas left for wildcats, with the greatest chance of long term viable populations. Six were selected based on a scoping report researching nine potential areas.

Strathbogie map showing large areas of connected forest (Scottish Wildcat Action).

Strathbogie map showing large areas of connected forest (Scottish Wildcat Action).

  1. Trap – Neuter – Vaccinate – Release (TNVR)

The more domestic cats and hybrids with low wildcat genetics that remain in the population, the greater the risk that they produce offspring with wildcats. The aim is to neuter and vaccinate at least 75% of cats which would be genetically undesirable to the wildcat population during the five year project in each area.

  1. Survey and Monitoring

Obtaining robust information about cat populations is essential to identify key areas and note any changes over the course of the project. A genetic test has been developed to assess purity of both wild and captive individuals.

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An example of a camera survey site. (James Walker).

An example of a camera survey site. (James Walker).

  1. Land Management

Working with Forestry Commission Scotland, a key partner, on trial management to benefit cats could be an important step, and influence new guidelines for forest managers. Trials on artificial den sites, with the help of gamekeepers, could also be important in providing protected sites for raising young and resting in areas where natural sites are either unavailable or of poor quality.

  1. Risk Reduction

Lethal feral cat control is commonly conducted by many sporting estates, often using spotlights to pin point targets to shoot in the field (known as lamping). There is a chance that wildcats could be targeted accidently. The project has funds set aside for cage traps as an alternative to lamping or snaring.

  1. Captive Breeding

A captive population already exists, which will be paired with wild-caught wildcats to supplement the wild population in safe areas using a soft release method.

One of the new conservation breeding enclosures. (Scottish Wildcat Action/RZSS).

One of the new conservation breeding enclosures. (Scottish Wildcat Action/RZSS).

Practical Delivery

A team of three project officers currently cover the survey and practical conservation actions in the field across the six priority areas. I caught up with Emma Rawling, Priority Areas Project Officer for Strathbogie and Strathavon and Project TVNR and Community Liaison Officer, to find out more about what these diverse roles involve.

What was your career background that led to your role as a priority area project officer for Scottish Wildcat Action? 

I have had a very long and varied career, but I think what has led me to this role is a combination of scientific and practical skills. Having experience in handling animals, both in a veterinary and conservation context, has been really valuable. But also having the scientific background from a master’s degree in wildlife biology to understand how to go about preserving a whole species, or at least attempting to! 

How would you describe your role within the project?

My role is part of a small team all working together on the big picture for the species, including awareness raising and building on our scientific understanding. But it’s also very much a local role, in two priority areas, where I am the person seen as the wildcat officer for the region. This involves everything from responding to public enquiries, looking after volunteers, doing practical fieldwork, a bit of everything the project is involved with across the two areas. 

What are the biggest challenges you face on a day to day basis?

Like almost every conservation project, I think the biggest challenge is workload and how to prioritise so many things you would like to be able to do and that requires effective time management. You definitely have to be good at juggling time to pull off a role like this.

Which key skills would you identify as being crucial to success in this type of role? 

I would probably say a really crucial group of skills, often underestimated in this field, are people skills. To be able to help wildcats, you have to be a great ‘people person’, talking to landowners, gamekeepers and farmers to persuade them to work with you. We talk to the public and manage volunteers. Building relationships is crucial to help wildcats on the ground. Public speaking engagements, running school events and dealing with landowners are all really challenging, so the ability to do all of those things is important to be able to pull off the full range of a project officer’s role. So surprisingly people management skills rather than cat handling skills are probably the most important. 

How do you see your role evolving over the five year project period? 

I think a five year project like this will always have phases, so at the moment the first year has been spent getting to know people, building relationships, getting information and researching cats in our priority areas, a big information finding phase. I suspect years two and three will be will be much more focused on practical follow up work like cat trapping and neutering of feral cats with vets. I am hoping that by years four and five what I will be doing more of is training people to do more of this work and the push to help wildcats after the project funding has finished. So almost working towards making myself obsolete!

Career Opportunities

The internship programme has provided a unique opportunity to be involved in scientific fieldwork and learn comprehensively about a major mammal conservation project. Locally, many people have taken the chance to run camera traps as part of the survey work, an important transferrable skill for a career in conservation.

Emma Rawling told me, “Scottish Wildcat Action is hoping to continue to involve volunteers of all sorts in a really in-depth way over the five year lifespan of the project. We would always be keen to involve recent graduates and people looking for work experience, as we benefit hugely from their input and hope that the people who have been part of the internship programme this year have benefitted from the experience as well, a win-win situation for both parties”.

From a personal perspective, I would definitely recommend getting involved. It has provided invaluable career experience in building transferrable research skills in the context of a practical species focused project and has helped to heavily influence my future career ambitions.

Follow the Project

Many thanks go to everyone at Scottish Wildcat Action, with special mentions to Emma Rawling and Vicky MacDonald for providing excellent interviews and helping to develop the article.

This is a short version of the article. To gain a more in depth insight into how the project was designed and the science behind the research, in addition to photographs of wildcats from the first formal project field survey, please read the full version here

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