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

James Owen in London
for National Geographic News
March 10, 2005
 
Common cats in northern Scotland could soon push their wild
ancestors to extinction, conservationists warn. New research
suggests only some 400 genuine Scottish wildcats remain in Britain
after centuries of crossbreeding with feral cats (common domestic
cats that live in the wild).

The Scottish wildcat's plight is highlighted in a recent survey by Mammals Trust UK. The London-based wildlife charity's report on the 2004 status of British mammal populations calls for urgent action to save the country's last native feline. Proposed measures include creating protected wildcat areas, neutering domestic cats, and establishing captive breeding programs.

Though wildcats were once widespread in Britain, their estimated numbers slumped to between 1,000 and 4,000 in the 1990s following centuries of persecution and habitat loss. Researchers now believe the picture is even bleaker, with as few as 400 purebred animals clinging on in the Scottish Highlands. This qualifies the wildcat as Britain's most endangered mammal.

Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) in England has spent ten years studying the elusive feline, which colonized the country soon after the last ice age. WildCRU researchers say the Scottish wildcat faces the same fate as the European lynx, a cat species that died out in Britain around 2,000 years ago.

Wildcat populations are known to be vulnerable to fragmentation of ancient forest habitats and vermin-control measures. For example, game-bird farmers are known to shoot wildcats that they mistake for feral cats, which are legal to shoot.

Conservationists, though, are most concerned by the hybridization caused by amorous encounters with wild-living domestic cats.

"We have to do something about those mongrel cats living in the wild," said WildCRU's Nobuyuki Yamaguchi. "Without tackling this problem, we probably can't secure the wildcat's future."

The World Conservation Union currently lists the Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia) as "vulnerable." This means the feline faces a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future.

A subspecies of the European wildcat, the Scottish wildcat is closely related to the domestic cat, which first arrived in Britain with the Romans.

Crossbred Mongrels

Because they have lived alongside each other for so long, true Scottish wildcats and crossbred mongrels are difficult to tell apart.

"Natural historians only started to describe wildcats in the 18th century—some 1,700 years after domestic cats had been brought to this country. So nobody really knows what a true wildcat was," Yamaguchi said.

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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