Wildcat Haven – Saving a Species on the Brink of Extinction

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Adrian Bennett

The Scottish Wildcat Felis Silvestris Grampia, once present across the whole of the United Kingdom, is now confined to a fraction of its former range. It features strongly in the culture of Scotland and its wild instincts have proven to be virtually untameable. However, it is critically endangered owing to several threats; recent estimates suggest there may be as few as thirty five left in the wild.

Wildcat Haven is an independent project, based on fieldwork and proactive conservation. Significant progress has been made in a relatively short time with limited funding. I caught up with Emily O’Donoghue, director of the project, to find out more.

Why is the Scottish Wildcat in such great danger of extinction and how are you reversing the trend?

They’re very closely related to domestic cats so can cross-mate with them creating fertile hybrids, this process has gone on for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years with feral cats, creating a complete spectrum of genetics, making it very hard to identify pure wildcats, and leaving them outnumbered perhaps by as much as 3000 to 1. Given all this, it’s hard for wildcats to find other wildcats to breed with, so the true wildcat form is disappearing into the feral cat genepool. We carry out a range of actions but the primary one is intensive feral cat neutering in remote areas where wildcats still exist, focusing on geographical areas like peninsulas where, once all the ferals have been neutered, we can keep un-neutered ferals out with a heavily live-trapped border zone at a geographic bottleneck. So far we have nearly 500 square miles where all the feral and pet cats have been neutered.

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The current location of the project area – the Ardnamurchan peninsula – easier to isolate from feral cats. www.wildcathaven.co.uk.

How do you identify and genetically analyse different cats in the field?

Initially by using pelage (fur markings) criteria; true wildcats have very specific markings, this is further verified by a genetic blood test, comparing against samples from museum specimens, the genetics are still going through final verification but so far appear accurate. As a cautionary procedure, a small ‘safety population’ is also being temporarily maintained in case of any inaccuracies. Once the genetics are verified those safety cats can also be neutered; they are radio collared so that they can be found again.

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Feral Cat neutering – an essential measure to prevent further hybridisation.

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A fine example of a Scottish Wildcat. (Adrian Bennett).

What challenges did you face bringing people on board with the project and how do you balance the logistics of working with a large number of partners, e.g. landowners, on a day to day basis?

Initially local stakeholders were concerned by the risk of disturbance to wildcats by trapping them, and many were unconvinced by neutering as a control method. We invested huge amounts of time to being in the area really getting to know people face to face and one on one, listening to their thoughts, ideas and experiences, adapting what we were doing around a lot of it, while also offering things like pet cat neutering and health checks free of charge (the nearest vet is a long way away),  advising local businesses on developing eco-tourism, doing talks for local schools and so on, trying to really put something into the community because their support was so important. As the locals have seen our dedication to the project and willingness to work with them rather than dictate opinion, they have become strong supporters and help us in many ways such as monitoring for cats, providing resources and people time. It has become a really strong and effective partnership, from local cat welfare groups to the general public and landowners like farmers and shooting estates, people want the wildcat back and protected and believe in the approach we’re using so it’s a great environment to work in.

Have any funny or strange incidents occurred during fieldwork which you can share?

I think the big surprise is discovering that all the legends about wildcat elusivity if anything undersell the capability of these creatures. People on our team have camera trapped impossible animals like Andean Mountain Cats but Scottish wildcats truly are ghosts and exceptionally difficult to find, track and monitor; when it comes to humans they take no risks at all and seem to have a sixth sense for any kind of camera trap or lure stick. One classic example was a camera trap set with bait to try and get a shot of a suspected wildcat; the cat managed to get the bait, leaving a single footprint to evidence it being there at all, without triggering the trap which was fully functional. Reviewing the files later, it appeared the trap had been triggered a couple of times by some foliage moving in a strong wind, and the cat had taken the bait in-between shots. Of course you have to assume it was coincidence or drive yourself mad but they’re certainly something pretty special and absolutely deserve to be defined by many writers as the wildest of cats.

The project has progressed much faster than the official government projects to save the Scottish Wildcat. Do you think smaller, independent operations such as Wildcat Haven can be the future of species conservation?

Not necessarily smaller, but simply less bureaucratic; we are streamlined and believe in putting thoughts into action rather than spending ten years sitting in meeting rooms shuffling bits of paper around defining our “desired outcomes”. As one of our expert advisors put it really early on in planning; we know what the problem is, we know a few ways to deal with it, so let’s go and do it, what more is there to talk about? The cat neutering is a great case in point, there were five years of debates over whether it could work or not amongst the “establishment” conservation organisations, yet no one went out and gave it a try. Six years into our project it appears to be working phenomenally well, and those other groups are still having the same debate over whether it can work or if we just fluked it.

Conservation is renowned for not being a financially blessed sector. As an organisation how do you raise money for the project and maximise its effectiveness?

The majority of our funding comes from foundations in the USA who like the use of a welfare based technique (feral neutering) to achieve conservation. Some of them are conservation groups, others are welfare groups, and we have also had support from a few wealthy individuals in the USA and China for the same reasons. As the project has gained momentum we have started to get commercial sponsorships in the UK, both money and resources. For example Volkswagen gave us a much-needed four wheel drive to use this fieldwork season. Of course there are also donations from the public and the mixture of welfare and conservation means we have an eclectic base of supporters. Most of this comes from keeping a high profile in the press who are very supportive, and that’s much cheaper than more typical advertising and marketing. We have found that if you do something interesting, people will shout about it and people who can support you hear about it that way. Budgets are still very tight, we’re pretty much all volunteers, but keeping it streamlined and free of the boardroom meetings, office spaces, branded vehicles and so on means we can be effective and anyone who does support us tends to do so again and again because they can see their money is being really well spent. Many funders are frustrated by money getting spent on nothing happening; they fund things because they want to see results and that’s what our whole project is designed to achieve.

Do you feel it will one day be possible to reintroduce the Wildcat into parts of its former range in the United Kingdom and create viable populations?

Hopefully. We do have a long way to go with the feral cat issue though, the places we work are very remote, very low human density, and so very low feral cat density, the ragged geography of the Scottish west coast is also helpful offering up lots of those peninsulas that can be isolated. Somewhere like England is a trickier challenge, but we certainly believe it’s possible, this model should be adaptable to anywhere that wildcats live ultimately.

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The West coast of Scotland – the current stronghold of the Scottish Wildcat. (Flickr/ Arran Moffatt).

Bringing a species back from the brink of extinction is clearly a complex process. Can you give any aspiring conservationists some tips on how to develop the skills to work on such projects?

It depends what role you want to play, the best academic researchers often come from the best universities after years of study to get PhDs; you really need that to get taken seriously or access funds to research anything. The best fieldworkers tend to be the ones who have spent the most time out in the field doing things, even if only voluntarily, and sometimes experience in other areas crosses over well. Some of our field team have backgrounds in the military for example, they’re obviously incredibly capable running around over mountains with heavy equipment, love to work to structured sets of “orders” and can quickly learn how to do things like set camera traps.

A real missing link though, is often in project leadership; Wildcat Haven was put together originally by a self-confessed hobbyist who had no experience in conservation whatsoever; he was a film producer, a job which requires organising a diverse team of people into a cohesive whole and making something happen out of it. He pulled in the experts to formulate a detailed action plan, found funders based on that, found fieldworkers based on that, organised it all for a few years to proof the concept then handed it over to the current team who have more extensive backgrounds in ongoing management of a project. That leadership element to get a project started is so often what is missing; the UK is full of brilliant researchers and fieldworkers, but they all need bringing together and pushing along to make things happen.

How can people get involved or help with the Wildcat Haven project?

Opportunities are very limited due to licensing restrictions on who can work with pure wildcats because they are a highly protected species, but anyone is welcome to drop us a CV at admin@wildcathaven.co.uk or to follow us online where we will certainly call out for help as it is required. We do hope to be able to expand the team over the next few years now that we feel extremely confident in the methodology. The best way to help wildcats in the meantime is always to help spread the word, raise awareness of the importance of neutering pet cats, and share the Wildcat Haven project with people; that word of mouth from the public and the press is really important to encourage more responsible cat ownership and gain the awareness of all kinds of people who can help us progress.

Many thanks go to Emily O’Donoghue for providing such an in-depth insight into the Wildcat Haven project and to Steve Piper, for being so helpful in organising the interview and providing photographs. To learn more about Wildcat Haven, you can visit their website. Or follow them on Facebook. And Twitter.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Wildlife