Dominic Woodfield is the Managing Director of Bioscan, a long established and well-respected consultancy specialising in applied ecology. He is not a wildcat specialist, but has significant experience of working with rare and protected species and is currently instructed by Wildcat Haven to advise on regulatory and ecological matters, including on the methodology for their national wildcat survey.
Dominic has written four previous guest blogs here: The Great Divide, 1 July 2020; Sorry Tony, you cannot spin this into a good news story for Natural England, 23 September 201`9; NE, Badgers and Judgement, 24 September 2018; Whither Now for State Nature Conservation?, 9 July 2018.
The Scottish wildcat Felis sylvestris is a highly charismatic species that was once widespread in Britain but, since the late 1800s, has been largely (and now wholly) restricted to northern Scotland where it is now formally recognised as critically endangered (Mathews & Harrower 2020). It is one of very few components of Britain’s larger post-glacial carnivorous fauna that has survived into modern times, managing to cling on in the remotest landscapes centuries after lynx Lynx lynx, brown bear Ursus arctos and wolf Canis lupus succumbed to persecution, hunting and habitat loss.
In the 1960s and 1970s, growing recognition of a need for co-ordinated international efforts and agreements to conserve declining species led to the UK’s ratification and signing of various international treaties, followed ultimately by the consolidation of disparate domestic legislation into the Wildlife and Countryside Act in 1981. However, at that time the wildcat was considered sufficiently populous and under sufficiently low threat not to merit special protection under domestic (UK) law. Surveys in the 1980s overturned any such assumptions, finding the species to be in significant decline (Easterbee, Hepburn & Jefferies 1991). While this led to the addition of the wildcat onto Schedule 5 of the Act in 1988, neither that nor subsequent conservation efforts have halted the species’ continued decline.
Although vulnerable to habitat loss, disturbance and persecution, the single biggest threat is now widely accepted to be hybridisation with domestic and feral cats Felis catus, a threat that poses a very real possibility of progressing to genetic extirpation in the near future. While there is no debate over the existence and severity of that threat amongst those involved in the conservation of the species, in recent years there has been increasingly polarised and fierce disagreement about where efforts should be directed to prevent the species’ extinction from the UK.
The fires of this debate have been fanned by a recent report (Breitenmoser et al. 2019) which was commissioned by Scottish Wildcat Action, a group of government and non-government stakeholders responsible for implementing the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan (SNH 2013). On the basis of a documentary and data review, Breitenmoser et al. estimated that there may be as few as between 30 and 430 genuine wildcats remaining in the wild in Scotland and concluded that this, in the face of the hybridisation threat, meant that the species was no longer ‘viable’ and indeed ‘functionally extinct’. This conclusion appears to have been quietly and uncritically accepted and adopted by the Scottish Government and its nature agency NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage). It also encouraged Scottish Wildcat Action to redirect resources increasingly away from in situ conservation of remaining populations towards exploring future reintroductions via captive breeding and use of continental genetic stock. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that the remaining wild populations of Scottish wildcat have been given up on and that the species is being allowed to slip quietly into the mausoleum of extinction as a native British mammal.
This article questions the basis and veracity of the ‘functionally extinct’ categorisation, challenges its adoption by official agencies and non-government stakeholders and points to the need for a new and comprehensive Scotland-wide survey to be urgently carried out as a first step to better informed and more coordinated and effective conservation action to bring this iconic species back from the brink. The author is concerned that the hybridisation threat, as real and present as it is, is being used consciously or unconsciously as a cover for complacency and inaction, and that the Scottish and UK governments are consequently failing in their international duties to seek to preserve the remaining population, in line with the internationally accepted maxim that recourse to translocations and reintroductions should be sought only as a ‘last resort’ (McLean 2003). There are even worrying signs that the ‘functionally extinct’ moniker, despite the very shaky information base underpinning it, is being adopted out of convenience in situations where critically important surviving population nuclei are in conflict with (and under threat from) economic development and associated land use change.
Causes of decline and current threats – a story of conservation failure
Today, the wildcat is subject to statutory protection in Scotland under the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 (as amended) and the duty to further its conservation is tied in with international obligations and conventions incumbent on the UK and Scottish Governments, and in part underpinned by further statutory provisions. Despite this, the species has been wholly bypassed in the enactment of certain provisions, and efforts to preserve it generally have arguably been a good deal less than proactive and rigorous. For example, even though surviving population nuclei of wildcat cannot conceivably be of anything other than national importance and scientific interest, the wildcat stands apart from almost every other rare native mammal in having no sites at all designated for its specific protection under domestic law. It also receives little more than cursory attention (focused on minimal legal compliance) in forestry policy and practice, notwithstanding that many publicly owned commercial forests are known sites for the species, are sited in Wildcat Priority Areas or are in areas where the species is known to historically be present. This is despite sensitive management of remote commercial forests potentially being critical to its survival and future recovery prospects.
Three interrelated factors appear to be especially influential in explaining the inconsistent and largely ineffective conservation effort that has been directed at the species since the 1980s. They are as follows:
1. From a population nadir prior to the Great War, largely believed to have been driven by nineteenth century gamekeeper persecution and which saw the species largely confined to north-west Scotland (Langley and Yalden 1977), the wildcat underwent a period of population and range recovery and potential expansion in Scotland, allied in part to the post-war afforestation drive. The species’ twentieth century zenith was probably reached in the 1940-1960s and subsequent significant decline was not then documented until the 1980s. There is a suggestion that the comparatively healthy position recorded or assumed from the 1940s to the 1980s delayed any recognition or response to the crash of the population, an oversight then compounded by factors 2 and 3 below.
2. The species, in common with most wild felids, is an apex predator that tends to be thinly distributed, highly cryptic and very difficult to survey. Prior to the availability of camera traps, national censuses such as those between 1983-1987 (Easterbee, Hepburn & Jefferies 1991) and 2006-2008 (Davis & Gray 2010) tended to rely heavily on third-party information, much of it from vermin control records, road casualties and public sightings, the reliability of which could be questionable. The reliability of data outputs from these surveys was further influenced by factor 3 below.
3. The issue of hybridisation further complicates conservation action and focus. It not only tends to blur the focus of discussions over the conservation of the species, but also complicates understanding of its past and current status and the practical workings of policy and statute-based conservation measures. There can be little doubt that were there no issues surrounding hybridisation and the implications this has for effective conservation, the low population and critically endangered status of the Scottish wildcat, would be a source of much more acute urgency and focus. As it is, the fact that the Scottish wildcat is in imminent danger of disappearing entirely appears to attract astonishingly little attention.
In the author’s view, the cumulative effect of the above factors has certain parallels with the events leading up to the extinction of the large blue butterfly from Britain in the late 1970s and the pool frog in the 1990s; stories of ultimate failure of conservation due to lack of data, timely action, Government disinterest and accusations of complacency. Wildcat conservation in more recent years has been both a failure (by the simple measure of the species’ parlous conservation status) and a subject dogged by controversy. Today, there is a spectrum of views and opinion on what should be done. At one end is the seemingly now official Scottish Government line that the wild population is, post-Breitenmoser, ‘no longer viable’ and ‘functionally extinct’, and unable to recover without capture of remaining animals and captive breeding and reintroduction efforts, including introduction of continental genetic material. At the other end of the spectrum are those who reject that view and continue to press for in situ conservation, protecting both the habitats and the genetic provenance of the remaining population nuclei and putting measures in place to enable these to expand and reconnect.
The, at times acrimonious, debate between these various actors is further diverting from, and stifling, coordinated and concerted action. All would probably agree, however, that resolution of the debate is not assisted by the significant ongoing uncertainty about the true current status of the species in the wild. Indeed, the Breitenmoser et al. review itself recognised that “the lack of information on the distribution of feral domestic cats, hybrids and wildcats are two main problems facing wildcat conservation in Scotland” (Breitenmoser et al. 2019).
It is clear that current population estimates and any conclusions about conservation priorities based upon them, are in all cases compromised by lack of certainty. They all rely, to a greater or lesser extent, on data from past studies that were subject to high margins of variability and error, with better and more recent studies (e.g. Hetherington et al. 2012) being generally very localised in geographical scope. Extrapolation from and the agglomeration of these differing datasets further erodes the confidence that can be afforded to current population and range-occupancy estimates and puts conservation decisions, and conclusions about the species’ existing and future viability, at high risk of being founded on an unreliable baseline. The conclusion seems self-evident that in order to arrive at a more informed and preferably agreed and definitive position on the most appropriate means to prevent the Scottish wildcat from slipping away, there is an urgent need to revisit the question of the current status of the species in the wild in Scotland. This is consistent with normal international approaches founded on the principle that ‘the best conservation translocations are those that never need to occur’ (IUCN 2020). However there appears no intent in that direction from Scottish Wildcat Action, its successor Saving Wildcats, nor the Scottish government.
A new national survey – a potential game changer?
National wildcat surveys were conducted in 1983-88 (Easterbee et al. 1991) and in 2006-2008 (Davis & Gray 2010), but the robustness of their results for use today is compromised by the limitations of the techniques of the time and by vagaries in the diligence with which attempts were made to distinguish hybrid from true wildcats. For example, the pelage scoring system developed by Kitchener (Kitchener et al. 2005), which uses a cumulative scoring approach based on coat markings to separate likely true wildcats from hybrids, only came into widespread use after 2005, and large-scale camera trapping that allows this technique to be applied more widely and effectively has only recently become a practical proposition. There have been no studies that have applied these more effective techniques rigorously at national scale.
This is important because if the proportion of hybrids included in the population estimates derived from the surveys in 1983-1988 and in 2006-2008 was higher than presently assumed, it could call into question (or at least require qualification of) currently received wisdom that the hybridisation problem has worsened and accelerated over the last few decades. If the proportion of the ‘wildcat’ population comprised of hybrids in the 1980s and 2000s was in fact closer to the present situation, this would lend support to those arguing that classifying the species as ‘functionally extinct’ is at best premature. It might alternatively suggest some degree of stasis with a core nucleus of true wildcats persisting in the face of the hybridisation threat for decades, rather than this being a particularly new, aggressive or recent phenomenon, or one particular to the Scottish experience (hybridisation is reported to be much less of a pernicious threat in continental Europe – see e.g. Steyer et al 2017)). Ascertaining whether the species is genuinely ‘functionally extinct’ also requires consideration of whether the population nadir reached around 1914-1915, and from which the species recovered well, was at all comparable to the number of true wildcats surviving today; if it is, it might be argued that Scottish wildcat has shown itself able to bounce back from a low population before so why could it not do so again, without the need for interventions such as captive breeding? Lastly, conservation success stories around the world lend support to the possibility of recovery of critically endangered populations, once threat factors are removed or reduced, even populations comprised merely of two-digit numbers of surviving individuals.
Obviously if the hybridisation issue is not tackled and mitigated, the prospects for the species surviving as a distinct genetic entity remain gloomy regardless of whether in situ conservation or captive breeding and reintroduction is pursued as a strategy. But the hybridisation challenge is common to all potential routes forward, and requiring of effort and resources in all scenarios. It is not a reason against expending resources in establishing a robust baseline for decision making.
The time for a comprehensive re-survey of the Scottish wildcat population is therefore now (and urgently now) if future conservation actions by both Government and NGOs are to be taken on a properly informed basis and potentially catastrophic mistakes avoided.
The case presented by Brietenmoser et al. 2019 that the Scottish wildcat is ‘functionally extinct’ and ‘non-viable’ simply has not been adequately made out. There is no question that the species is critically endangered, but it has shown itself capable of bouncing back from a population nadir in the past, and perhaps more importantly, the discovery of hitherto unknown populations, such as that at Clashindarroch Forest in Aberdeenshire, over the past few years prove that it is capable of surviving in small relict and remote populations that escape discovery without concerted and skilled efforts to find them. Put together with the large margin of uncertainty over current population estimates that rely upon extrapolation from diverse and often old datasets, with patchy or incomplete coverage and in some cases questionable parameters, and the conclusion that the species is beyond saving in the wild appears at best premature and at worse cavalier and irresponsible. This is especially so when the effect of this conclusion appears to be manifesting itself as a malaise of fatalistic or complacent attitudes that encourage inaction and simply accelerate the species’ nosedive towards extinction. There are clear signs that this is already influencing land management decisions that should otherwise be highly constrained by the conservation needs of the species, such as in the Clashindarroch Forest, where a wind farm proposal currently threatens possibly the most important remaining population nucleus. Efforts, funds and focus have also in recent years been increasingly diverted away from in situ conservation and onto plans for capture of remaining animals and translocations involving continental stock. Critics have put this change of focus down to captive breeding and translocation being much easier, glossier, more exciting, and better able to attract funding, than doing the hard yards in the field. Whether that is fair or not, the case for this ‘last resort’ option has, again, simply not been adequately made out – indeed at present it appears to contravene universally accepted national and international policy and guidance on species translocations. The fierce debate that this change of focus has caused and the resulting polarisation of critical actors in the battle to save the species has further wasted valuable time, effort and resources.
If this large, charismatic carnivore goes extinct as a British species due to such inaction, complacency and neglect, the negative consequences for the Scottish and UK Government’s standing in international conservation circles (not to mention implicated NGOs) will be acute. If that is to be avoided, there is an urgent need in the first instance to establish a baseline from which to make far better and more informed conservation decisions – indeed with hindsight this ought to have been the first action of the 2013 Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan. While it is not yet too late to rectify this missed opportunity, there appears to be an absence of parties able or willing to do so. Scottish Wildcat Action, the collection of government and non-government stakeholders charged with implementing the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan, recently reached the end of its term as an entity, but its successor Saving Wildcats has received the same criticisms that it has given up on in situ conservation and is too distracted by captive breeding. In the absence of any intent from Government or Saving Wildcats, the independent organisation Wildcat Haven has mobilised to organise, resource and manage the fieldwork and data collection for a new national survey in order to arrive at a robust and up to date understanding of the range and population of the species and guide in situ conservation efforts. It is already reporting sightings in ‘new’ locations and continues to fundraise to expand the work.
The fact that it is falling to Wildcat Haven, a wholly independent voluntary organisation, to step into the breach and crowdfund essential work to secure the conservation of a species that is subject to national and international legal obligations, should be a cause for acute shame and embarrassment for the Scottish and UK Governments. It does however offer a ray of hope that all is not yet lost for the Scottish wildcat.
Breitenmoser, U., Lanz, T., & Breitenmoser-Würste, C. (2019) Conservation of the wildcat (Felis silvestris) in Scotland: Review of the conservation status and assessment of conservation activities. IUCN report to Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan Steering Group.
Davis, A.R. & Gray, D. (2010) The distribution of Scottish wildcats (Felis silvestris) in Scotland (2006-2008). Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No. 360.
Easterbee N., Hepburn L. V. & Jefferies D. J. (1991). Survey of the status and distribution of the wildcat in Scotland, 1983-1987. Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland.
Kitchener, A.C., Yamaguchi, N., Ward, J.M. & Macdonald, D.W. (2005) A diagnosis for the Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris): A tool for conservation action for a critically-endangered felid. Animal Conservation, 8: 223-237.
Mathews F & Harrower C. (2020), Regional Red List of British Mammals. The Mammal Society.
McClean, I.F.G. (2003) A Habitats Translocation Policy for Britain. JNCC on behalf of The Countryside Council for Wales, English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage.
Scottish Natural Heritage (2013) Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan. SNH publication.
Steyer, K., Tiesmayer, A., Muṅoz-Fuentes, K & Nowak, C. (2017) Low rates of hybridization between European wildcats and domestic cats in a human-dominated landscape. Ecology and Evolution 8: 2290-2304.[registration_form]