Wildcats again

Apologies for the late posting of this morning’s post – technical issues connecting to the database (whatever that means!).

Yesterday’s guest blog by Dominic Woodfield was on a contentious issue – the right way to conserve Scottish wildcats. This is an important issue and I’m grateful to Dominic for writing about it.

What doesn’t seem to be in contention is that the Scottish wildcat is in deep trouble and our conservation efforts to date have failed to work very well.

Dominic suggested that a new, and better, national survey of the Scottish wildcat population would be useful, indeed a potential game changer. That doesn’t seem like the most amazingly contentious suggestion to me – and indeed none of the comments seem to suggest that such a survey would be a waste of time or anything but helpful.

It’s always interesting when a new person comments on this blog, particularly when they do so repeatedly and at length. Yesterday an Alan Peterson and a Paul Paterson commented on Dominic’s guest blog. Paul Paterson’s first comment castigated Alan Peterson for copying something that he, Paul Paterson, had written elsewhere. A later comment by Paul Paterson said he didn’t know who Alan Peterson is. Since Peterson and Paterson made their comments from the same IP address it seems quite likely that they do know each other.

The Peterson/Paterson comments contain a mixture of information about wildcat conservation and opinions about some individuals active in this area. The former are very welcome.

It is difficult to separate views in all walks of life from the individuals who hold those views. And one’s overall assessment of a person’s motives and ability do influence what one thinks of their opinion on any separate issue – if you think that someone is an idiot (or evil) then your view on their next opinion will, probably rightly, be coloured but they might be right this time so it’s a good idea to look at the facts and refresh your assessment.

Dominic’s guest blog raises some interesting and important points about wildcat conservation which deserve consideration on their merits and any comments on those matters are welcome on the original post.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have met Paul O’Donaghue of Wildcat Haven only once (as far as I recall) and that was very briefly at a meeting several years ago organised by Highland Titles near Oban in either 2016 or 2017 where we both spoke. I’ve read quite a lot about him since then but I don’t have any involvement with him. I have my own views on his work but I won’t trouble you with them here. And while we are on Highland Titles, I have spoken twice at meetings they organised. Once in 2016 and again in 2017. At the first meeting I was promoting our e-petition on banning driven grouse shooting and Highland Titles had promoted it to their supporters and asked me to speak. I spoke again at their event in 2017 and haven’t had any contact with them since. I’m still grateful for their support in that campaign (see here). They paid my travel expenses and fed me and put me up for the night. You’ll see that here, where I disclose where my income comes from, I mention Highland Titles in 2017 along with others who asked me to speak at events – I think they should be mentioned in 2016 too (but maybe they didn’t pay any travel expenses that year – I’ll have to check) and if they should then I’ll add them by the end of today.

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12 Replies to “Wildcats again”

  1. I refrained from commenting yesterday on this as there were so many comments already made on the subject.
    However just a few points here, First of all I think it is absolutely critical that the truly wild cat is saved. However I think one needs to be well informed as to the situation before one can be too dogmatic and I am not that close to the situation . However I would say that it always seems to me that at least two and maybe three strategies to save a very endangered creature should be followed. In this case for example perhaps captive breeding and perhaps isolation and protection of known limited truly wild cat populations. At this stage it is often not easy to be sure of what is the best course to follow and one does not want to waste time and energy arguing the toss of one course of action versus another. Finally I think the sad fact is that one cannot rely very much on Government help or action. They are usually pretty poor, voluntary efforts are often much better.

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  2. I am in a similar position to Alan, in that the Wildcat must be worth trying to save and to me not to do that would be a dereliction of duty by both government and the conservation world. One of the first things we surely need to do whilst protecting that which we know remains of its populations is find exactly what the extent of that population is and what the true situation is with hybridisation. Captive breeding may well have a role but surely we need to know what the situation is "out there in the wild" to know how best to approach saving this native carnivore. whilst we are at it there may well be places in the rest of the UK that it was extirpated from where it could and should be restored.
    Do these cats suffer the same problem in law as Polecats/polecat ferret hybrids do in England? In that some keepers kill them claiming they are hybrids, thus not protected in law and it is very difficult to prove otherwise or at least that is the attitude of law enforcement.

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  3. Yesterday in response to my comments on forest management Dominic said that the petition wasn't about stopping logging 'but stopping the accelerated pace and magnitude'.
    So I went back to the petition which an 11th January press report says has raised £35,000 in donations. What it actually says is 'But they are in danger from logging. If this doesn't stop immediately the Wildcat will become extinct.'

    To be honest, I hadn't personally thought much about Wildcats and certainly welcome them getting higher profile - it is well worth reading Scottish Wildcat Action's report on their work at Clashindarroch which is really interesting, shows that serious action is underway and has a really good grasp on forest ecology - and is working closely with Forestry Scotland.

    Reflecting on this, the prospects for saving the Wildcat must be better now than for a long time - the huge new forests coming into their second rotation will be far more suitable, with both the mosaic of habitat, including open felled areas, Roo Campbell says the cats need, also seclusion - these are huge forests, with large areas way away from human habitation & domestic cats. Also, for the first time since the sporting gun was developed there is a large area of suitable habitat where Wildcats are safe from persecution - the Forestry Scotland forest estate.

    The one thing I certainly do agree with Dominic on is that these wonderful creatures must be saved !

    Worth also checking out Sir John Lister-Kay's Aigas (especially if you are suspicious of Government action) where there is a breeding programme underway.

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    1. Hi again Roderick. Unfortunately, I think you’ll find that the elevated focus on wildcats at Clashindarroch, including by FLS, is a product of the pressure being brought to bear by WH rather than something that preceded it. For a good illustration of why I think Clashindarroch is an outlier in this respect, have a look at how much paragraph space the wildcat gets in any other forest management plans throughout the FLS estate. Barely any, if it gets a mention at all. That applies even in Wildcat Priority Areas and known locations for the species. I’m happy to provide the details of my analysis on this.

      I’m sure individual foresters on the ground try their best and that they care about avoiding impacts to wildcats. But it is a highly cryptic species and I’m not sure that reliance on that is enough. You yourself say you haven’t thought about them much. And even if individual on-the-ground foresters can be relied upon to exercise due diligence, when they know it needs to be exercised, I’m less convinced that wildcats are anywhere near the agendas of their managers or the higher echelons of FLS. SSSI designation of the Clashindarroch would change that, which it is why it’s a good idea, I hope you agree.

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  4. SSSI notification is a red herring. The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 places a duty on all public bodies in Scotland to further the conservation of biodiversity, so Forestry and Land Scotland already are subject to a legal duty to further the conservation of wildcats (and other biodiversity). The Wildlife and Natural Environment Act 2011 requires public bodies to report every three years (next one due January 2021) on how the have fulfilled that duty.

    The wildcat is also pretty seriously protected as a European protected species and is fully protected under the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994. This is a pretty high bar and its difficult to see a windfarm proposal that might contravene this protection being approved.

    As to the relative merits of survey versus captive breeding, given that its not really possible to accurately determine the level of actual wildcat from looking at it, a wide scale 'have you seen a wildcat?' project is, in my view sadly unlikely to add much to the conservation effort of the species and arguably is a misallocation of resources.

    It seems to me that trap neuter and release is currently the only realistic means of making any progress in wildcat conservation and that in itself is a long shot. Those who complain about the nature conservation bodies simply monitoring decline might, with this in mind, like to consider the difference between the Wildcat Haven survey and the Wildcat Action Plan.

    And just to cloud the waters further, its by no means certain that anyone could be convicted of an offence against wildcat because of the legal problem in determining whether an individual is a 'real and legally kosher' wildcat as a result genetic pollution/enrichment of the species through previous wild and domestic cat hybridisation.

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    1. Bimbling, might I suggest you read/re-read my original article as you seem to have missed some critical points?

      Firstly, I point out that the statutory framework you mention appears to have been poorly applied or even disapplied in relation to the wildcat. You seem to think that it is sufficient on its own to secure the species’ future. The evidence suggests otherwise.

      Secondly, a wind farm is being proposed to be built on possibly the single most important remaining site for the remaining wild population. That alone does not suggest the existing protective regimes (or at least their application) are working well.

      Thirdly, if you’d read my blog carefully, you would understand that a nationwide ‘have you seen a wildcat?’ approach to national survey is exactly what is NOT needed. Nor is that what is proposed by WH: I am trying to help them design something much more robust.

      And finally, the remainder of your points strike me as arguments for ‘do nothing’, ‘there’s no problem here’ or ‘it’s a lost cause’. The central point of my article is that the status quo is not acceptable if you agree the species needs to be saved. The implicit criticism of commercial forestry’s role in neglecting the species to date may have hit a nerve, but I invite you to put partisanship aside and look at the issue afresh.

      For the sake of the Scottish wildcat if for no other reason.

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      1. Short of actually trapping every cat in the forests - which is impractical and also impossible - or relying on a visual and then darting every cat, running a DNA check on ones that score highly on their pelage and neutering the rest, there seems to be no practical way to carry out an effective survey. One of the problems SWA have had in their own field work is the difficulty of the terrain, the elusiveness of these cats and the fact they seem to have no interest in traps. Looking at the FOI's in regards to WH, even when they were granted licence to trap cats (ended 2015), they didn't catch a single wildcat. Not one. So how do you suggest we improve upon this for a national survey when even WH failed in their own mission? I'm sure I might be accused of taking a "why bother" attitude here, but I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth - but at present, having been out there myself, until something credible is suggested I do feel like it's a misdirection of resources. WH have waxed lyrical about the misuse of £2m of government funds given to SWA who carried out a survey much like what is now being suggested, and yet their findings have been discredited by WH even when international conservation bodies have looked at them and considered them sound.

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        1. Ceit, the reason WH stopped trapping and let its licence lapse is because SNH (as then was) could not or would not give assurances that trap location data would not be used by them or SWA to recapture wildcats for captive breeding. WH have camera trapping footage of high pelage scoring individuals from then and since, and from several areas. They have not released location details to the ‘official’ channels for exactly the same reason. It is not the case that they’ve drawn a blank.

          I’m very interested in your claim that SWA have conducted a National survey. I’ve seen no evidence for any more than very localised effort. I would welcome some elaboration on this. One of the drivers for me writing the article and calling for a proper effort to be made on national survey is that there are vast tracts of ostensibly suitable looking habitat in remote parts of Scotland where nobody seems to have bothered looking. This is why the Breitenmoser et al conclusion is so premature. But if you have national data from the last seven years, let’s see it.

          We can agree on the fact that wildcat surveying is not for the faint hearted, unfit, unskilled or the non-hardy. But that is not an excuse to give up and not do it.

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  5. Is DNA analysis of scats a potentially useful means of surveying? (I know little about wildcats so I don't know if (a) this is already being done or not or (b) if finding scats is remotely practical).

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    1. Hi Jonathan. In theory it’s a brilliant idea and would be a great survey technique if the reference DNA database for Scottish wildcat was reliably comprised of untainted samples. But WH believe that not to be the case based on examples where very high pelage scoring animals have scored low on genetic ‘purity’ and cats that have clear hybrid features have scored highly. Having had first hand experience of eDNA failures with GCN and failures from DNA analysis of bat droppings, I am also not personally convinced it is always foolproof in wildlife surveying. If these problems could be ironed out, then yes scat testing could be the foundation of a step change in survey efficiency.

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  6. Hi Domenic what criteria was used to determine the ”genetic purity” in your last comment. It presumably was not pellage or was it.

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    1. Hi Andrew. Where DNA has been extracted from wild-caught cats by the likes of SWA, it is tested against a reference database. For this to be a robust approach, naturally that reference database ought to be comprised of samples from cats with little or no doubt about their provenance. The pelage scoring system is a different technique that assigns status by means of morphological characteristics that (where present) cumulatively point to 'true' wildcat origin. The more characteristics the greater certainty, the fewer, the more likely it is a hybrid or domestic/feral specimen. If these two systems are not delivering consistent results, and I am led to believe there are many examples where they are not, it suggests there is a problem with one or the other. I am yet to be convinced the problem is not with the DNA test.

      There is a propensity to hold genetic testing up as 'The Answer', but genetic testing as an ID technique is only going to be as good as the reference dataset - if your daughter has apparently inherited the family eyes, nose and skin colour, you are going to find it odd and perhaps questionable if a genetic test suggests she's someone else's. It might make you ask questions about the database against which her sample was compared. If you then took a test yourself and it suggested you were 2% grey seal, you'd start to ask a few more questions. I'm being flippant, but I hope you see the point. I'm not suggesting pelage scoring is foolproof either (it is not), but I do have an issue with the rush to accept genetic testing as the be all and end all and to favour it over pelage when the two do not deliuver the same result. DNA testing has the potential to be defnitive, yes, but I remain to be convinced we're there yet, at least in terms of its role in the conservation of the Scottish wildcat. Full disclosure of the reference sample database would be a good start.

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