Scottish Wildcat Action – Delivering a Partnership Project (Full Version)

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. In this article I hope to provide an idea of how a major conservation project is put together to target the key issues facing a species using a diverse range of expertise on each target area, as well as hearing from two of the staff on the project about their respective roles, to identify the career skills and experience needed to be an effective project worker.

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.

Behaviourally, the true wildcat is known to be highly secretive and largely active at dawn and dusk, particularly in areas with a higher human population or historical persecution. They are, however, able to live and adapt around managed habitats, such as commercial forestry and the edges of farmland.

Classic profile of a Scottish wildcat (Peter Cairns).

Classic profile of a Scottish wildcat (Peter Cairns).

Under Threat

After going through a genetic bottleneck due to historic persecution, the wildcat population experienced a recovery during the First World War. Hybridisation with feral and domestic cats would have been an increasing problem, and this has now taken over as the main threat to the wildcat in modern times. Hybridisation has resulted in a wide spectrum of hybrid cats being present in the environment. Skeletal and internal organs of true wildcats are larger; mean that the mixing of genes produces cats less suited to the hardships of their natural environment. Domestic cats and hybrids also reproduce at a higher rate throughout the year, whereas wildcats produce one litter in the spring of two to three kittens. The spread of diseases from domestic cats, such as FIV (Feline AIDS), is also a potential issue.

Protected by law under the Conservation Regulations 1994 and listed as a European Protected Species, persecution can occur accidentally during feral cat culling and in snares. Habitat fragmentation can result in the isolation of populations and increased vulnerability to road traffic. Unchecked, the purest cats will inevitably succumb to hybridisation resulting in local extinction, a process which has already happened in parts of Scotland.

Conservation Action

So how do you save a species with a number of serious threats to the current population? A pilot project, known as ‘Highland Tiger’, tested out some of the measures outlined in the action plan, as well as raising a lot of public awareness.  Scottish National Heritage (SNH) commissioned studies to find the most effective way of surveying wildcats with camera traps and, once this had been achieved,  a scoping report to identify six priority areas for wildcat conservation.

Partnership working is a key element of many conservation projects, bringing stakeholders and like-minded organisations together to instigate action on a wider scale. This can bring its own challenges and can be a long process with partners with different viewpoints having to agree to a set of decisions and objectives. However, it does implement conservation at multiple levels, both from the top of stakeholder organisations to land and wildlife management on the ground.

Key Actions

  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.

  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.

  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.

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!

Priority Area Focus: Strathbogie

The priority areas for wildcat conservation were chosen due to their suitability to certain criteria:

  • Good numbers of reported wildcat sightings from the area in the recent past.
  • Promising findings from the commissioned scoping report.
  • Ease of implementation of conservation measures such as TNVR and conducting comprehensive surveys.

Strathbogie is located in Aberdeenshire in north-east Scotland, an area with a wealth of wildcat sightings in recent history. Studies of radio collared cats have also taken place in the past few years, providing an insight into the differences in favoured habitats and movement patterns between feral, hybrid and wildcats in the area.

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

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

The large areas of forest cover provide excellent habitat for wildcats, well adapted to the management patterns of commercial logging, and the fact that the majority are owned by Forestry Commission Scotland, a project partner, makes liaison and coordinating survey and conservation work much easier. The landscape is one of lowland valleys rather than the mountainous regions close by. The main land uses are forestry and farming. This mosaic of habitats provides an ample mix of shelter, denning opportunities and hunting ground.

A view of the landscape from a prominent hill (Emma Rawling).

A view of the landscape from a prominent hill (Emma Rawling).

A number of villages and small towns are in the priority area, which can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it has led to a wealth of volunteers based locally to help the survey, whilst it also means there will be a higher number of domestic cats with the potential to add to hybridisation. To combat this, the project will launch a campaign to encourage people to neuter and vaccinate their domestic cats, as well as visiting houses and farms closest to areas know to contain wildcats to help ensure cats are vaccinated and neutered, therefore presenting no threat to the vulnerable wildcat gene pool.

Survey Logistics

In order to implement a successful Trap Neuter Vaccinate Release (TNVR) programme and gather more intelligence on the wildcat population, a comprehensive survey of each priority area has been undertaken. A methodology has been designed where around 70 camera traps are placed in suitable habitat in every 1.25 kilometre square of each priority area. One post is used for the bait, usually a quail or partridge, while another is scented with salmon oil and has strips of Velcro attached, in theory, to gain hair samples for DNA analysis. Each camera trap is checked every two weeks, with a total running time of sixty days.

Setting up and maintaining around 70 camera trap sites in each priority area requires a huge amount of time and effort, so local people have been invited to take part, with a hugely positive response, as Project Officer Emma Rawling explained. “A wildcat project, in particular the winter survey, could not have happened without a huge amount of community involvement. Across my two priority areas alone we have over fifty volunteers helping staff and maintain cameras, bringing commitment, enthusiasm and vital local knowledge, which is a real credit to people in the two areas”.

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

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

Cat Identification

Results of all species gained in the survey provide useful data; particularly as mammals are not intensively surveyed in the UK. Finding evidence of species such as Red Fox and Pine Marten, which share some of the same habitat and prey requirements as the wildcat can suggest that an area is suitable for them, even if none are currently present.

The crucial aim of the survey, however, is to find as many cats as possible and provide photos from various angles for accurate pelage scoring and hair samples to build up a genetic profile of cats in a given area. The project uses a system designed through scientific study which identified key pelage features to score cats on a 21 point system, with a score of 17 or more to be considered a possible wildcat. A relaxed identification system is used to help sporting estate managers in the field and any groups neutering cats without an expert on hand, to ensure a safe approach.

Field examples:

A domestic or feral cat, given away by the marbled coat pattern.

(Scottish Wildcat Action).

(Scottish Wildcat Action).

This hybrid has a large amount of white fur indicating a strong domestic cat ancestry. Other obvious features include the more broken stripe pattern and tapering of the tail.

(Scottish Wildcat Action) .

(Scottish Wildcat Action) .

This cat has some features of hybridisation, with the broken stripes and slightly tapered tail. Overall however, the pelage shows it to have much stronger wildcat ancestry than domestic.

(National Trust for Scotland north-east ranger service)

(National Trust for Scotland north-east ranger service)

One of the best cats recorded on the survey, this individual displays many textbook wildcat characteristics.

(Scottish Wildcat Action) .

(Scottish Wildcat Action).

Identifying individual cats is important but often difficult, requiring skills to be able to pick out subtle features such as the shape of a single stripe. Pictures on camera traps can vary greatly, so it is also important to be able to modify site set ups to get pictures at the right angle.                                                          

Once identified and pelage scored, each individual cat is put into a record file with a unique code and nickname. Details such as gender, genetic test score, locations recorded and behaviour are noted, to develop distribution maps and for comparison in future surveys.

Unexpected Encounters

One of the perks of working on a conservation project for a rare and elusive species is that you might actually get to see one. This was the case one morning when Emma, the project officer supervising me on the internship, called to say a potential wildcat had been caught in a live trap set for foxes at a small farm near a large area of forest.

On arrival, we were greeted with a very angry animal, quite possibly a young female, which we later pelage scored at well above the ‘possible wildcat’ threshold. After quickly taking a few record photographs and hairs to conduct a genetic test, it was released and sprinted off into the forest.

The encounter also further highlighted the importance of community engagement in a project such as this, and its usefulness to gain as a career skill, as making previous contact with the landowner led to a new result for the survey.

Scottish Wildcat in the live trap just before its release back into the wild. (James Walker).

Scottish Wildcat in the live trap just before its release back into the wild. (James Walker).

Genetic Evaluation

The pelage scoring system is known to be fairly accurate in determining the level to which a cat shows wildcat characteristics and is the only way to do so in the field or from photographs. A genetic test has now been developed by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland at their Wildgenes laboratory to provide accurate evaluation of the purity of cats, both in the wild and captivity. The genetic profile of cats currently present across each priority area will help to identify individuals to target for the TNVR programme, and to make the most of the captive stock to produce genetically strong cats to boost the population in the wild.

Conservation Breeding Programme

The conservation breeding for release programme is being based on the successful model of the Iberian Lynx project, which has restored populations in Spain and established a new one in Portugal. There are between 80 and 90 Scottish wildcats currently in captivity and the Cat Conservation Officer based at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park is responsible for both the existing captive and new conservation breeding programmes. All cats in captivity have now been genetically tested and pelage scored to assess for purity.

Simultaneously, large natural enclosures where human contact is minimal have been built at the Highland Wildlife Park in the Cairngorms National Park, to house breeding pairs of wildcats away from the public, with large estates also being encouraged to take part by building enclosures on their land. Once all the purest cats have been paired to ensure greatest genetic diversity, offspring will be released into safe areas where the threats are low and prey is available. The enclosure design also ensures that small mammals can pass through to allow the cats to hunt naturally, although supplementary food is also provided. Monitoring is done through the use of camera traps. Wildcats will be released using a soft release method, familiarising them with an enclosure at the release site before opening the doors, where they can leave and return at will whilst they become accustomed to their new environment.

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

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

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 due 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.

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

  • Keep up to date with the Scottish Wildcat Action project work on their website:
  • Facebook:
  • Twitter: @SaveOurWildcats

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.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Land Manager