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The Scottish wildcat, Felis sylvestris, is one of the UK’s rarest mammals, now restricted to the Highlands of Scotland. As of 2015, we still do not have an accurate figure for the number of ‘pure’ Scottish wildcats living in the wild, due to their elusive nature. Some people think there could be as few as 40 to 400 left, but these figures should be read with caution at this time.

Around the turn of the 19th/20th century, the Scottish wildcat had been pushed to the verge of extinction as a result of massive deforestation and systematic persecution on Victorian sporting estates. A brief recovery as our land became more covered with trees, coupled with less intensive killing, allowed the wildcat to regain some ground in Scotland. However, the massive influx of feral cats into the wildcat’s domain has resulted in the species once again facing extinction; this time through hybridisation with their domestic cousins.

As a result, it is now not clear whether there are any wildcats left in the Scottish countryside which could be described as ‘pure wildcat’. NTS believe there are still some Scottish wildcats out there which still retain that essence of untamed wildness, and in September 2012, we joined the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Group, currently chaired by Scottish Natural Heritage, in order to assist with key conservation work. In 2014, NTS became members of the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Steering Group, charged with saving the species.

Through the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan, the top wildcat experts and conservationists in Scotland and the UK have pulled together in order to help co-ordinate action to conserve this incredible animal. The first stage in this process has already begun, with a £1 million Heritage Lottery Fund project kicking off in January 2015 which aims to focus work in 6 priority areas to conserve the wildcat.

This HLF project, called Scottish Wildcat Action, has seen the employment of a team of 6 highly experienced project officers and staff, who will work for the next 5 years trying to change things around for Scottish wildcats in Morvern, Strathpeffer, the Angus Glens, Aberdeenshire and around the Cairngorms. The project team will be based at various offices, including those of the Forestry Commission, Kincraig Wildlife Park, Scottish Natural Heritage and the National Trust for Scotland.

A key member of the conservation partnership is the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, who are currently trying to capture the best wildcats still out there in order to bring them into a vital conservation breeding programme. It is early days for this work but NTS believe it is essential that the best wildcats (and the genes, characteristics and wild behaviours they carry) are safeguarded from any more hybridisation with domestic cats.

At the same time, NTS conservation experts and our experienced rangers hope to establish the current status of the Scottish wildcat on NTS land. NTS staff hope to carry out key survey work on our land to find out more answers to the many questions out there.

Should you wish to find out more or donate towards this valuable work, please contact Lindsay Mackinlay, Nature Conservation Adviser, at lmackinlay@nts.org.uk