Guest blog – Is it really too late to save the Scottish wildcat? by Dominic Woodfield

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.

Scottish Wildcat. Photo: Edwin Godinho

Introduction

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.


A sedated hybrid cat, caught, neutered and collared by Wildcat Haven on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. The pattern of stripes and large head at the front of the animal are indicative of wildcat while the blotchy markings and narrow tapered tail at the rear are strongly indicative of hybrid origin. Photo: Wildcat Haven

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.

Conclusions

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.



The Clashindarroch Forest, Aberdeenshire, where possibly the single most important remaining population of Scottish wildcat is threatened by accelerated timber extraction and other land-use changes connected with a wind farm project. Photo: Wildcat Haven.

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.

References

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.  

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35 Replies to “Guest blog – Is it really too late to save the Scottish wildcat? by Dominic Woodfield”

  1. Part of a worrying trend where hands-on interventions that are easier to publicise, fund and implement are seen as the way forward, at the expense of habitat maintenance and restoration. As you point out, if the habitat and conditions on the ground are not in place, all the work on captive breeding and releases will be futile.

    I’m not sure there is any realistic chance of influencing this given that captive rearing appeals so much to funders, the interested public, those running the centres, and the vested interests keen on damaging existing wildcat habitat. It’s all very depressing. An example of people supposedly trying to help with conservation but actually making things worse.

    Likes(17)Dislikes(1)
    1. There is also a major unanswered question and that concerns the status of hybrids. Since feral cats flourish over much of Britain (pretty common where I live in East Anglia) may be they are 'apex predator' for 21st century rural England? Maybe they are better adapted to modern times. It is more of a question of what is the objective of conservation efforts? If it is simply to preserve a bunch of genes from a post pleistocene coloniser, then extirpate all the feral cats etc. But if the purpose is to maintain an apex predator, then hyrbidisation might be a positive action -- hybrid vigour etc etc. I am sure the same issue exists with wolves in continental Europe, where many populations are 'contaminated' with dog genes. But they are now expanding their range, and presumably fulfilling their ecological role. I always felt this was something hat should have been considered in the white-headed dusck issue.
      Personally I think there needs to be an informed debate about the postive/negative impacts of hybridisation and its relevance to 21st ecosystems. Perhaps Mark's blog is a good place to start it?

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  2. Wildcat Haven play no official role in any aspect with the Scottish wildcat and have no official bearing on the Scottish Wildcat programme. Wildcat Haven has not held a licence to trap, neuter and release any cat species since 2015 and they have no wildcats to adopt. All cats previously captured or held were classed as hybrids, their sister arm Highland Titles have said of the following about Wildcat Haven: "Our 'scientific advisor' (whom we no longer work with) thought they were all pure - some of the best specimens he had seen. As it turned out, two were feral cats, missing the target purity by some margin."

    Oh hold on, POD can find kittens lying at the side of the road, which turned out to be hybrids. Wildcat Haven still hasn't produced the full evidence of these 13 wildcats which now seem to have vanished and the lack of any peer reviewed and evidence from Wildcat Haven is so thin to non-existent that the official bodies and all scientists, zoos, universities and other establishments all refuse to listen to Wildcat Haven and are declared by the courts as serial vexatious litigants and extremist fringe group.

    Wildcat Haven lost their libel case against a MSP, the court costs are in excess of £150,000 and the late/out of date appeal by Wildcat Haven due to be heard soon shall be thrown out. Your donations are going to Wildcat Haven’s pocket to pay for these court costs and for the wages of the two directors, you are all being hoodwinked.
    https://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/docs/default-source/cos-general-docs/pdf-docs-for-opinions/2020csoh30.pdf?sfvrsn=0

    Oh dear, Wildcat Haven has no licence, the SSPCA and SNH/Nature Scot investigating, not looking good for Wildcat Haven. Beware of the frivolous rhetoric from Wildcat Haven and its only two staff, for they are spinning misleading nonsense and all under the powder-puff of their own failings. Wildcat Haven; lost their own Court of Session Libel case. Wildcat Haven lost their own case against the Scottish and UK government whereby the Bern Convention dismissed Wildcat Haven's case, they lost. Wildcat Haven's own director Dr Paul O'Donoghue lost his own employment tribunal case, again Dr O'Donoghue also has lost every single court and legal case that he has brought... Take note: there are many laws from the 18,19,20, 21 Century that are all applicable across the whole of the UK including Scotland. This alone tells you that Wildcat Haven have not got a clue. "These provisions are found in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 applicable to England and Wales, and in corresponding legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

    Beware of the frivolous rhetoric from Wildcat Haven and its only two staff, for they are spinning misleading nonsense and all under the powder-puff of their own failings. Wildcat Haven; lost their own Court of Session Libel case. Wildcat Haven lost their own case against the Scottish and UK government whereby the Bern Convention dismissed Wildcat Haven's case, they lost. Wildcat Haven's own director Dr Paul O'Donoghue lost his own employment tribunal case, again Dr O'Donoghue also has lost every single court and legal case that he has brought... Take note: there are many laws from the 18,19,20, 21 Century that are all applicable across the whole of the UK including Scotland. This alone tells you that Wildcat Haven have not got a clue. "These provisions are found in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 applicable to England and Wales, and in corresponding legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland. " Also read: https://www.nature.scot/professional-advice/protected-areas-and-species/protected-species/legal-framework/wildlife-and-countryside-act-1981

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    1. Blimey! I don't know who you are Alan, but whatever your grievances with Wildcat Haven / personal antipathy towards its proprietors, how about putting that aside and engaging with the actual conservation issues here? That, after all, is what my piece was about. Do you think it's OK to write the species off and default to captive breeding and reintroduction while there is still an unquantified number of wild-type cats out there and still a chance that the species could recover from in situ conservation efforts?

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    2. Alan Peterson. I see that you have copied what I have posted on another social media page, please don't, better still write your own comments.

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    3. It is not really my place to defend Wildcat Haven, and indeed discussing the long list of allegations against them in these comments by Alan and Peter (whose connection to the issues is what exactly?) is merely a distraction from the pressing conservation questions I raise in my blog (with which I note neither of them engage).

      Their attacks have however shocked me and given me cause to look further into their allegations. I suggest any others who are concerned about the legitimacy of Wildcat Haven might wish to do the same and in particular that they might wish to read the full judgment in the libel case before deciding if Wildcat Haven are unworthy of support.

      The failure of the case is rather portrayed by the MSP in question as (to paraphrase the outgoing POTUS) a ‘complete exoneration‘. But in actual fact, the judge found that statements the MSP had made about WH repeatedly in public were in places factually incorrect and indeed defamatory. The judge also held that “on the information available to me, [Wildcat Haven] is a small company engaged in a genuine scheme aimed at the conservation of wildcats, run by well-intentioned and enthusiastic individuals.” I think these things are important to note for balance. Ultimately the judge dismissed the case due to WH being unable to prove financial harm as a consequence of the statements in question. Not because the case was unarguable. One might say it was somewhat misguided of them to bring it, but that is a whole separate discussion.

      I see no reference to the courts finding WH to be a ‘serial litigant bringing vexatious claims’, nor to WH being labelled by the courts as ‘an extreme fringe organisation’. It is of course quite true that they are not ‘official’ in the sense of being linked or allied to Government, but as my article explores, the ‘official’ parties here have arguably dropped the ball. ‘Official’ is not automatically the same as ‘right’, and unsuccessful legal challenges do not always equate to ‘wrong‘. Something that readers of Mark’s blog are likely to appreciate more than most.

      Meanwhile, the Scottish wildcat itself edges closer to extinction as a native, wild British mammal. I’d rather get back to discussing that, but thought a bit of balance on this ancillary matter wouldn’t go amiss.

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  3. Amen to that.

    Whether you like it or not – we are bit by bit screwing up the habitat that nature depends on, and foolishly what we depend on too, at no time in all of mankind’s history have we been so out of sync with nature.
    Our landscapes are naturally out of balance because it financially suits us to manage them this way. Our lives are so technology advanced we think by flicking by a switch or offloading piles of money we can change things around. Conservation social media PR bombards us for money and you continuously fall for it hook line and sinker.
    Today, this minute, now, I would describe that that we are witnessing the equivalent of a land gold rush, and it’s a game that for those who can afford it are playing. And it’s a very wide selection of interested parties indeed.
    The wildcat like so many other species has to take it chances, they’re not going to hand-over large-tracks of Scottish woodland and say it’s all yours, we humans don’t want it. But that’s exactly what needs to happen, not just for the cats but a large percentage of other species too.

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    1. "the complaint was dismissed"

      https://search.coe.int/bern-convention/Pages/result_dhttps://search.coe.int/bern-convention/Pages/result_details.aspx?ObjectId=09000016809fbcf3etails.aspx?ObjectId=09000016809fbcf3

      Decision: The Bureau acknowledged the new complaint against the United Kingdom concerning an alleged failure of the authorities to conserve the rare Scottish Wildcat species (Felis Silvestris) listed in Appendix II of the Convention.

      The Bureau also thanked the authorities for their detailed response to the allegations, noting that they disagree that a breach of the Treaty has occurred, and that expert analysis had reached the conclusion that the species could no longer be conserved in the wild, and thus captive breeding and reintroduction schemes were required.

      The Bureau noted that while it is aware of the poor conservation status of this species, the actions of the government appeared to be the only realistic solution to save the species: to repopulate it in captivity and eventually reintroduce it in the wild.

      As there is no clear breach of the Convention, the complaint was dismissed - the Bureau supported the government’s strategy, but urged the authorities to cooperate together with the complainant organisation and the IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group in order to share expertise and elaborate joint action plans.

      https://www.alaw.org.uk/2020/11/bureau-rejects-scottish-wildcat-haven-bern-convention-complaint/

      By Sophie Mills, Trainee Solicitor

      The Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris) is one of the few native predators left in Scotland. With only 35 recorded in northern Scotland in recent years, they are at risk of genetic extinction. Three main factors have contributed to this: (1) hunting for sport; (2) loss and fragmentation of their habitat; and (3) hybridisation and associated disease.

      In 1988, the Scottish wildcat gained legal protection under schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, making it illegal to deliberately or recklessly capture, kill, or injure a wildcat and to damage or destroy breeding sites or resting places of a wildcat. It is against this background that recent steps taken by Wildcat Haven, a grassroots community interest company, are considered.

      Bern Convention Complaint

      Experts have suggested that the population of Scottish wildcats is no longer viable, with numbers so low, and that breeding in captivity is the only viable option to significantly grow their population. Wildcat Haven disagreed, and the organisation instead established a campaign to protect and conserve the remaining wildcat population in their current habitat. The group recommended a comprehensive national survey to identify wildcat presence, followed by strict protections to prevent logging and disturbance, in addition to an intensive neutering programme for hybrid and feral cats in the area.

      Wildcat Haven stated that 13 of the remaining 35 wildcats live in Clashindarroch Forest. However, this area is a commercial woodland, and the forest is subject to logging operations. National Geographic reported that 90 hectares of timber – 1.3% of the forest – is cut annually. Forestry and Land Scotland’s new land management plan for Clashindarroch proposes felling 5.2% of the trees over the next five years, and thinning across 29% of the forest area.

      As a result of the continued commercial operations at Clashindarroch Forest and the apparent failure to make any specific protections for the wildcats, Wildcat Haven submitted a complaint (dated 9 April 2020) under the Bern Convention against the UK, as a Contracting Party to the Convention, regarding the alleged failures of the devolved government in Scotland.

      The Bern Convention is a binding international legal instrument in the field of nature conservation, covering the natural heritage in Europe. The Convention aims “to ensure conservation of wild flora and fauna species and their habitats [and gives] special attention to endangered and vulnerable species….” Appendix II of this Convention specifically mentions the protection of Felis silvestris.

      Wildcat Haven’s complaint included the following alleged failures of the Scottish Government:

      Failing to complete a comprehensive national survey which adequately assessed the remaining population size and distribution of the species and failing to produce a cohesive national action plan to protect the remaining populations in the wild;
      Failing to apply and uphold environmental laws designed to protect this strictly protected species from disturbance; specifically, as a result of commercial logging ongoing at the Clashindarroch forest; and
      Failure to enforce and uphold the Convention in respect of a planned windfarm development by Vattenfall Wind Power Limited which would disturb the wildcat’s resting place.
      UK Government Response

      In the response by DEFRA on behalf of the Scottish Government (dated 31 July 2020) to Wildcat Haven’s complaint, all alleged failures were rebutted on the basis that “whilst recommendations can be helpful tools, which the UK values and implements where it is appropriate to do so, none of these recommendations are legally binding on Parties to the Convention”. Further, several key areas of the complaint strayed beyond the UK’s obligations under the Convention, e.g. non-compliance with obligations under EU law which is not within the remit of the complaints process under the Convention.

      The UK Government response recognised that wildcats are one of Scotland’s most endangered animals and their conservation and protection is of the “highest priority”. To this end, a Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan (SWCAP) was produced in 2013. A SWCAP Steering Group, representing a range of organisations, specialisms, and interests, was established to take this work forward and implemented the multi-partner Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA) project (which ran from 2015-2020). The SWA concluded that there is not currently a viable wildcat population in Scotland – the number of cats is too small, hybridisation too far advanced, and the population is too fragmented. The IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group (CSG) has also been instructed by the Scottish Government to carry out an independent review of SWA’s work and other wildcat conservation activities in Scotland.

      The independent review from the CSG, along with the conclusions of the SWA, informed the design of a new EU LIFE-funded project, ‘Saving Wildcats’. This work runs from 2019-2025 and involves (1) the further development of the conservation breeding programme in collaboration with breeders across the rest of the UK and Europe; (2) the construction of purpose-built breeding facilities at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s (RZSS) Highland Wildlife Park, liaising with other European specialists who will be providing animals for the project; and (3) the production of a new, updated wildcat action plan.

      Bern Convention Decision

      Wildcat Haven’s complaint was considered at the meeting of the Bureau of the Standing Committee of the Bern Convention on September 15-16, 2020. In their brief decision, the Bureau stated that a breach of the Convention had not occurred and the complaint was dismissed. Their expert analysis reached the conclusion that the species could no longer be conserved in the wild. The actions of the Scottish Government to repopulate the wildcats in captivity and reintroduce in the wild appeared to be the only realistic solution.

      The Bureau supported the government’s strategy, but urged the authorities to cooperate together with Wildcat Haven and the IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group in order to share expertise and elaborate joint action plans.

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    1. I am afraid it is true. Wildcat Haven plays no official role in any aspect with the Scottish wildcat and has no official bearing on the Scottish Wildcat programme. Wildcat Haven has not held a licence to trap, neuter and release any cat species since 2015 and they have no wildcats to adopt. All cats previously captured or held were classed as hybrids, their sister arm Highland Titles have said of the following about Wildcat Haven: "Our 'scientific advisor' (whom we no longer work with) thought they were all pure - some of the best specimens he had seen. As it turned out, two were feral cats, missing the target purity by some margin." Wildcat Haven is a CIC and not a charity, the same director also has eight companies, one being a brand new property company. CICs are not held as accountable as full companies and therefore do not have to show how, where or even when any funds are found, used or receipted for. As for any "conservation" work that Wildcat Haven may allege to do, is not official in terms of playing in any official role, but are mere token words to attain monies from the gullible public. It is indeed correct what Alan has mentioned and alluded to.

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      1. Paul. The whole point here is that the 'official' channels have arguably failed the species. Did you not stop to read the article before rushing to attack Wildcat Haven?

        Also, in light of the direct polemic I have received by e-mail today, am I right to suspect that Alan is Paul and Paul is Alan?!

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        1. As per email:
          "Dear Mr Dominic Woodfield

          First of all i am not sure as to what you are referring to I am not Alan Peterson, who ever he is?

          Your comments are noted, not agreed but are noted.

          My grievance lay in the facts that Wildcat Haven is a scam outfit and after due diligence I am offering my opinion and that of facts that stand for themselves which others including courts have declared as such. My intention is to allay that this fringe outfit has no place and serves no purpose or function, that others have been burnt by their dealings with this outfit directly under the auspices of the infamous Dr. O'Donoghue. That is all I have to say on the matter.

          Kind regards

          Paul Paterson
          Freelance Press Photographer
          Ex Zoo Curator and big cat specialist "

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          1. Paul - you may not be Alan Peterson but he has the same IP address as you, which rather suggests you might be.

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          2. I have received this information via email this morning, not from anyone at WH I hasten to add:

            “You’ll no doubt have seen the comments by Alan Peterson who is really Paul Paterson (despite the misleading post in the comments where he castigates himself). This is just to let you know he has a history of obsessive and repeated trolling of Scottish Wildcat Haven, Paul O’Donoghue and of its supporters. He was, under his real name Paul Paterson, at one time a keeper at the Glasgow zoo that was shut down as they failed to meet animal welfare standards, reportedly due to lack of funds. http://www.animal-protection-consult.com/GLASHID.PDF. His motive is unclear.“

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        2. Mark.
          I am concerned on what you have said, if that is the case, I shall enquire as how this can be.

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          1. Mark.
            Having spoke at length with my Internet provider, they have mentioned that the issue comes from someone "piggybacking" onto my line and the Internet provider has sent out a new hub and provided an updated security software package.

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        3. Dominic Woodfield

          Your post and comments are erroneous and factually misleading nonsense. I have worked in a number of zoos, one being Glasgow and factually untrue regarding its reason for closure. Bear in mind that Glasgow did help the Born Free group with rhe rescue of Bongo the black bear and which they themselves facilitated in.

          Regards

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    2. No, Chris, you haven't been scammed. I suggest anyone concerned by Mr Peterson's allegations researches Wildcat Haven's side of the story and notes the slightly unhinged tone that tends to be used when attacking them. Mr Peterson does not say where or how he fits in, but the grievance is clearly personal, as I have had alsmot carbon copy e-mails from the similar sounding Paul Paterson too.

      I have been assisting Wildcat Haven for around a year. I know relatively little about these allegations, but I can see that quite possibly the decision to pursue a libel case against said Scottish MSP was not a good one. But as his attack on WH's means of fundraising was an existential threat to the organisation's existence, it is perhaps understandable. I am satisfied that WH exist to pursue wildcat conservation, not to dodge taxes.

      I am not part of WH, but I am as satisfied as I can be that all monies raised from their funding go towards pursuing the cause of wildcat conservation. Yes, this includes raising a complaint to Bern about the matters raised in my article and challenging NatureScot about failure to designate Clashindarroch as a SSSI. As Wild Justice have proved, sometimes such routes are an entirely legitimate part of the conservation armoury. I don't think that is a waste of anyone's money.

      Your donation will be well spent. I wouldn't be even remotely involved with the organisation if it wasn't going to be.

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      1. If not aware well worth checking discussions online concerning parallel projects: Lynx UK Trust and Wilder Britain (Golden Eagle reintroduction Wales)...

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  4. I don't know any more than I've read about the hybrid debate but am very concerned about comments made on the management of Clashindarroch (and other) forests. Ignorance and prejudice over forest management seem increasingly accepted amongst many nature conservationists. Roo Campbell gives an excellent account of what Wild Cats really need - find it under Clashindarroch Forest. But, in case you can't be bothered, key issues include
    1. Felling: the open ground after felling is a key part of Wildcat (and other species) habitat, particularly for the voles which are an important part of the diet of several predators. A closed canopy (undisturbed !) forest would be a far poorer habitat for these species. Personally, I'm not keen on windfarms being put in forests when there is so much open hill- but their sites will provide further open space, which is at a premium in 1st generation upland plantations.
    2. Disturbance: as any cat owner knows, cats are adapted to move their litter in the face of threat. Forest operations move at a snails pace in the context of a large forest and give more than enough time to move a den - and as Roo points out, Forestry Scotland are in any case working closely to avoid unnecessary disturbance of den sites. But, for naturalists used to open habitats, there is also the factor of how wildlife behaves in forests - it simply drifts away from threats (other than to fixed points like nests). It is also remarkably tolerant of people working alongside it - Goshawks flying over the heads of noisy chainsawyers, for example - but the minute you show interest - even look, let alone raise binoculars or rifle, it's away - there is a clear sense of what is a threat as opposed to people just sharing the life of the forest.
    3. SSSI: Wildcat haven have been lobbying for Clashindarroch to be made an SSSI, presumably on the assumption that this would stop felling. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of how an SSSI plan would work - and the prime example is the Thetford Forest SSSI/SPA plan which specifies a minimum (not Maximum) amount of felling and also limits felling coupes of under (not over) 5 hectares - because Nightjar for which the site is scheduled require a continuous supply of freshly felled sites, and have been shown to prefer sites of over 5 hectares. On the available science the same lessons would apply to a Clashindarroch SSSI management plan - and if I were running the forest I'd be positively welcoming designation.

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    1. "the complaint was dismissed"

      https://search.coe.int/bern-convention/Pages/result_dhttps://search.coe.int/bern-convention/Pages/result_details.aspx?ObjectId=09000016809fbcf3etails.aspx?ObjectId=09000016809fbcf3

      Decision: The Bureau acknowledged the new complaint against the United Kingdom concerning an alleged failure of the authorities to conserve the rare Scottish Wildcat species (Felis Silvestris) listed in Appendix II of the Convention.

      The Bureau also thanked the authorities for their detailed response to the allegations, noting that they disagree that a breach of the Treaty has occurred, and that expert analysis had reached the conclusion that the species could no longer be conserved in the wild, and thus captive breeding and reintroduction schemes were required.

      The Bureau noted that while it is aware of the poor conservation status of this species, the actions of the government appeared to be the only realistic solution to save the species: to repopulate it in captivity and eventually reintroduce it in the wild.

      As there is no clear breach of the Convention, the complaint was dismissed - the Bureau supported the government’s strategy, but urged the authorities to cooperate together with the complainant organisation and the IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group in order to share expertise and elaborate joint action plans.

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    2. I think your reply is based on some misconceptions Roderick. As I say in the article, sensitively managed commercial forests are probably key to the species' survival and future prospects.

      The issue at Clashindarroch is not about stopping forestry, but stopping the accelerated pace and magnitude of clearance that is proposed there. This is intended not for silvicultural reasons but in a drive to facilitate Vattenfall's proposed wind farm. That accelerated pace has little to do with sensitive forest management of the type in your Thetford example and everything to do with facilitating development.

      SSSI designation of the Clashindarroch is not being pursued to stop felling. It is being pursued because a) there can be no doubt that the site is of national importance for wildcats, b) this means that NatureScot's statutory duty must be to designate (why are they so resistant to doing so?) and c) because that might help save perhaps the most important remaining nucleus of the species from the impacts of a large scale development. On any analuysis, surely the species cannot afford the risk of those impacts.

      Look at this another way. If the site had been designated a SSSI because of its undoubted critical importance for wildcats, then do you think it would have been looked at it as a good site for a wind farm? If someone proposed putting wind turbines on Coquet Island, do you think that proposal would get off the ground? No, because it is home to a critically rare species and covered with protective designations.

      This is the whole point. Why does the wildcat get treated as a second class conservation issue?

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    3. You're right, I can't see how a 'mature' or maturing conifer plantation with a closing canopy would be good for wildcat or much of anything, there's virtual absence of ground flora or in fact any visible life. A few years post felling when there's a bit of mini scrub, willowherb, foxgloves etc and plenty of voles must be the prime time for wildcats. The fuss that was made over Clashindarroch was a bit bizarre and not thought through IMHO.

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  5. Well thank you Mr Paterson for pointing out my gullibility. That's £25 wasted, that will teach me to do my online research a bit better. Wildcat Haven, would you care to give me a refund?

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  6. I would have more enthusiasm for restoring and preventing the destruction of habitat rather than the raising of "pure" wildcats for re-stocking. IMHO there is something iffy about wishing species purity upon a species that voluntarily interbreeds with another species. If it can do that and produce fertile offspring is it really a different species anyway, and not just a "breed" in the spectrum of cat breeds? Who are we to demand such conformity to "purity" in a cat species when any such suggestion for our own species would be regarded as abhorrent? What is the Gaelic for "Reinheitsgebot"?

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  7. Nah, they were hybridised out of existence by irresponsible domestic cat owners years ago. Cat owners would rather despoil the planet than empty the litterbox of an indoor cat.

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  8. Dominic Woodfield, thank you for your post at 4.35pm. I'm glad that my donation will not be wasted. I agree with your excellent blog, it is very important that an accurate survey is made. I hope that one day I may be lucky enough to see a Scottish wildcat.

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    1. Me too Chris! In fact I fully intend to make myself available to contribute in some way to the survey effort once Covid gets out of the way, the survey planning is finished and it can properly get off the ground. That's if I make the cut: I've always been very proud of my field skills, but finding wildcats in remote places and challenging weather conditions will put them sorely to the test. That and my fitness levels, which aren't what they were twenty years ago! But eyes on the prize and all that. Very glad to have put your mind at rest about your donation.

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  9. I was pleased to see a blog on this subject which highlights a number of issues which it seems have been until now largely ignored.
    Having previously done some volunteer camera trap work with WH I am aware that they are considered by some to be controversial. I ceased contact with them in January 2019 for various reasons having spent many hours on foot and at my own expense trying to locate Wildcats. That’s not a complaint, (I love being in that sort of environment) it’s just factual for one/two of the previous commenters.
    However, I don’t believe that any of the alleged controversy should be used to deflect attention from the apparent failings of the government backed efforts to conserve the Wildcat in Scotland. This has been under various different guises and rebrands for well over a decade now, each billed as the last chance and is filled with many contradictions and substantial PR exercises.
    I have raised these concerns with the CEO of Nat Scot quite recently and received a lengthy response from the Nat Scot Mammals Advisor (formerly the Scottish Wildcat Action Priority Area Manager). While I appreciate the time and effort taken to produce the response it actually raised more questions which I have resubmitted.
    It is widely acknowledged that the Wildcat in Scotland is on its last legs for a number of reasons and needs every bit of help it can get but unless some of the issues are properly addressed it will only ever be a halfhearted effort.
    There is information available for anyone who wants to read it and form their own opinion on a Face book page titled “Save Clashindarroch Wildcats”
    (I’ll await the usual comment from Mr Paterson/Peterson that I “work for Wildcat Haven with my own agenda” but no constructive comment on the facts presented around the government backed plans etc. He/they are blocked and reported on my Twitter account for spreading false information. (Seems due to current World events they are taking a dim view of fake accounts regardless of topic) )

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    1. Steve Sleigh.
      Your post and comments are lacklustre at best with totally misleading nonsense. It is not false or seen as dim, no I have not been blocked or whatever you may alay too. Fact is, the Freedom of Information Act request documents that I have, that others have posted on the Internet searches and posted and supplied, of which the material facts show that you, Wildcat Haven are [rest of comment deleted by Mark Avery]

      Mark writes: Paul - your comments are long rambling and allege too many things of which I have no knowledge for them to be published here. All of what you allege may be true, but I cannot tell so it would be unwise for me to publish it here. Did you get anywhere with finding out how someone you claim not to know, Alan Peterson, posted comments here from the same IP address as you use? You said you were going to check...

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  10. This comment from the raptor conservationist Ruth Tingay provides some useful background information:
    https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2019/03/14/more-on-proposed-reintroduction-of-golden-eagles-to-wales/

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  11. Might I say - in my humble opinion based on 25 years of Trap Neuter return with high and rising numbers of un-neutered cats of the domestic species in the north of Scotland - the top priority is to create, nationwide, a safe environment in which the wildcat can thrive and extend into its natural ranges (woodland/ grassland edge) = an environment free from fertile cats of the domestic species. Nowhere in Scotland are wildcat ranges, present or future, far from human settlement/ activity which is where un-neutered cats of the domestic species come from.

    To focus on the lack of socialisation of a cat (which is what "feral" refers to) is a distraction when what we really need for effective change is to focus on reducing, humanely, the numbers of un-neutered cats of the domestic species (with the exception of those kept un-neutered under licence for breeding or medical reasons).

    Cats of the domestic species are originally from a hot dry climate, now living in a cold wet climate. There is some evidence from genetic studies that they have not adapted. Hence living rough has negative welfare implications as well as placing pressure on prey species.

    Human settlement patterns on our small island are dispersed, and we do not have the large connected swathes of original woodland/ grassland edge that still exist in mainland Europe, where human settlements tend to be clumped (see https://archive2021.parliament.scot/S5_PublicPetitionsCommittee/Submissions%202020/PE1674_Q.pdf).

    Much evidence about the restoration of suitable safe habitat for future wildcat populations - in particular about the high numbers of un-neutered cats of the domestic species on our small island - is cited in my Scot Gov petition (https://archive2021.parliament.scot/gettinginvolved/Petitions/scottishcatpopulation)
    and my 38 degrees petition (https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/ban-keeping-un-neutered-cats-in-scotland).

    The steering group of Scottish Wildcat Action identified as early as 2018 the need for the Scottish Government to give urgent attention to clear messaging, enshrined in law, preventing the keeping of cats of the domestic species unless they are neutered (with lawful exceptions). The high and rising numbers were verified by the IUCN report of 2019.

    The benefits of domestic cat neutering are superb:- the single most effective means to increase domestic cat welfare on an individual and population level; to give the future wildcats a chance to extend naturally; to take pressure off other wild species such as birds, amphibians and small mammals which are essential in the food chain and for functional ecosystems.

    Instead of acting, the government in 2020 redefined "feral cats" in such a narrow way that they could claim there are "not high numbers". And refused to consider compulsory microchipping of cats of the domestic species, which will be adopted in England very soon. Microchipping in itself is not enough to reduce the numbers and raise the welfare of the high numbers of un-neutered cats, however it does provide an opportunity for much-needed conversations with owners about the importance of neutering. Populations of ferally living cats only exist because they are constantly replenished by leakage from the pet and working cat populations. Attitudes are changing, the public are outraged when they see the suffering that homeless unsocialised cats have to endure, the public are asking why positive leadership is not being shown. The people are are ready - all we need is the policy.

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