With Only 400 Left, Wildcat May Be on Its Ninth Life

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This mixing has undermined the wildcat's protected status, granted in 1988. A government prosecution against the illegal killing of three wildcats about two year later failed because an expert witness was unable to say with certainty that the dead animals were indeed genuine wildcats.

Yamaguchi and his WildCRU colleagues have taken on the tricky task of formulating a definition of the Scottish wildcat that is "scientifically defensible." This has meant trying to reconstruct from existing physical features the closest possible likeness of a pre-Iron Age wildcat. "This is the cat that is furthest from domestic cats," Yamaguchi said.

"We more or less have a definition," he added. Details of WildCRU's benchmark wildcat are due to be published soon in the scientific journal Animal Conservation.

Because feral cats that prey on game may be shot legally in Scotland, conservationists also urge a code of practice that errs on the side of caution to prevent cases of mistaken identity.

WildCRU director David Macdonald co-authored Mammals Trust UK's report on British mammal populations. He recommends that "any striped tabby cat with a bushy tail and a black tip would be given the benefit of the doubt and treated as protected."

Macdonald also recommends that places where wildcats are still found in northern Scotland should be identified and designated wildcat protected areas. He suggests that cat owners in these areas be informed of the risks of hybridization, perhaps in conjunction with subsidized neutering and vaccination programs.

Pet Lovers

Nobuyuki Yamaguchi concedes that conservationists need to tread warily in the U.K., a nation of pet lovers. Given the estimated eight million pet cats in Britain, he said, "Removing wild-living domestic cats one way or another would provoke certain parts of society. We can't do anything radical."

Yet Yamaguchi admits that control measures based on neutering alone wouldn't go far enough in preventing Scottish wildcats from being hybridized into extinction—not with so many feral cats and crossbred mongrels already in the wild.

Conservationists working to preserve remaining European wildcats in central and southern Europe face a similar dilemma.

For instance, researchers at the Istituto Nazionale per la Fauna Selvatica in Bologna, Italy, identified wild-domestic hybrids among populations in Portugal, Italy, and Bulgaria. The scientists also found evidence of extensive hybridization in Hungary, suggesting that, as in Scotland, crossbreeding there has been going on for centuries.

But in Scotland there may be a fallback option if an effective conservation solution can't be reached between wildlife groups and government agencies. "In the worst-case scenario, we may have to assume that the Scottish wildcat population will disappear," Yamaguchi said. "The last chance may be captive breeding."

Mammals Trust UK recommends that plans for such a program be prepared in case reintroductions become the only way to prevent the Scottish wildcat from becoming another footnote in Britain's natural history.

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