Following a blog published on your website in January, we thought we should get in touch. We, Saving Wildcats, are a partnership project that aims to restore wildcats to Scotland through captive-breeding and release. We believe it’s our responsibility to address the inaccurate information within Dominic Woodfield’s guest blog.
The Saving Wildcats project is the next phase in wildcat conservation in Scotland, following on from the work of the Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA) project which ended in 2020. Both of these national partnership projects have been a combined effort of a diverse group of wildcat experts. From the field ecologists that carried out some of the first field surveys decades ago, to those who designed the first camera-trapping protocols and tested them across northern Scotland, to the museum specialists and other academics, the geneticists, naturalists, foresters, vets, and even non-specialists members of the public who carried out vital wildcat conservation on a voluntary basis. Not to mention the countless other members of staff working to keep the projects running.
We strongly feel that the blog on your website does these people a serious disservice. The author, who confessed to not being a wildcat specialist, has either missed or ignored significant published research. As a result, we feel that the conclusions the author has reached are, unfortunately, not only misleading but entirely incorrect.
The main point seems to be that there have not been enough rigorous surveys for the wildcat in Scotland, which leads the author to conclude that wildcats being declared ‘functionally extinct’ and the subsequent population restoration project are both premature. However, there is no mention of the extensive survey literature from the past decade, which is comprehensively reviewed by the Breitenmoser et al. (2019) report repeatedly cited in the blog itself. Despite this, the piece goes on to question the landmark conclusions and recommendations that the Breitenmoser et al. (2019) report contains.
Briefly, Breitenmoser et al. (2019) is a comprehensive review/assessment of conservation activity for the Scottish Wildcat by representatives from the Cat Specialist Group of the IUCN. It was written by some of the world’s leading cat conservation specialists. The report was commissioned by the Scottish Wildcat Action Steering Group in 2018, after three years of extensive survey data failed to find significant evidence of wildcats remaining in Scotland. It is freely available online, please read it here:
We’d also like to address the assertion that “large-scale camera trapping that allows this technique [pelage scoring] 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 factually incorrect. Here is the peer-reviewed evidence:
Dr Kerry Kilshaw, at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), first developed the use of camera-trap surveys for wildcats in Scotland, and subsequently used the technique to conduct wild-living cat surveys across the entirety of northern Scotland (23 sites). Dr Kilshaw went on to publish her PhD Thesis on this topic in 2015. Her estimate of wildcat population size used by SWA is based on extensive national camera-trap survey data that uses the pelage scoring method developed by Dr Andrew Kitchener, of National Museums Scotland.
Here are just a few of her publications, all of which are available online at the ‘Scottish Wildcat Project’ page of WildCRU:
- Kilshaw, K., Montgomerey, R.A., Campbell, R.D., Hetherington, D.A., Johnson, P.J., Kitchener, A.C., Macdonald, D.W. and Millspaugh, J.J. (2016). Mapping the spatial configuration of hybridization risk for an endangered population of the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) in Scotland. Mammal Research 61(1), 1-11. This publication includes data from an additional 4 sites collected as part of the Cairngorms Wildcat Project.
- Kilshaw, K. (2015). Introgression and the current status of the Scottish wildcat. DPhil, University of Oxford, pp 232.
- Kilshaw, K., Johnson, P.J., Kitchener, A.C. and Macdonald, D.W. (2014) Detecting the elusive Scottish wildcat Felis silvestris silvestris using camera trapping. Oryx 01/2014
- Silva, P., Kilshaw, K., Johnson, P.J., Macdonald D.W. and Rosalino, L.M. (2013). Wildcat occurrence in Scotland: food really matters. Diversity and Distributions, 19(2):232–243
- Silva, P., Rosalino, L.M., Johnson, P.J., Macdonald D.W., Anderson, N. and K. Kilshaw (2013). Local-level determinants of wildcat occupancy in Northeast Scotland. European Journal of Wildlife Research, 59(3):449-453
- Kilshaw, K. (2011). The Scottish Wildcat: Naturally Scottish Series. SNH publication. pp. 58
- Kilshaw, K. & Macdonald, D. W. (2011) The use of camera trapping as a method to survey for the Scottish wildcat. Scottish Natural Heritage Report 479.
The next important publication is the Cairngorms Wildcat Project Report 2009-2012 (Hetherington and Campbell, 2012), which Mr Woodfield does cite (albeit wrongly) with reference to surveys of limited geographical scope. The full report is also freely available online:
The Cairngorms Wildcat Project – final report.pdf (NatureScot)
The project was, in its own words, a “practical trial of targeted conservation actions”, deliberately focused on the Cairngorms National Park (CNP). The surveys which took place across five estates complemented Dr Kilshaw’s wider national survey effort by focusing on the Cairngorms and followed the same systematic methodology. The CNP may only be one area within northern Scotland, but it is the largest National Park in the UK (1,748 square miles) and of disproportionate importance in terms of wildcats, because it contains relatively high amounts of suitable habitat and was considered a potential population stronghold. Unfortunately, the surveys concluded that wildcats were “very rare”, even a decade ago.
Dominic Woodfield also fails to mention the national surveys carried out by NatureScot, known then as Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), in 2013-14 at nine sites across northern Scotland, using the camera-trap methodology developed by Dr Kilshaw. Again, this information is available online, published as Littlewood et al. (2014):
NatureScot (previously SNH) also commissioned a study by Dr Scott Newey, a population ecologist at the James Hutton Institute in 2014. This study assessed optimal design for wildcat camera-trap surveys:
Newey, S.; Potts, J.; Irvine, R.J. (2015) Simulation study to inform the design of wildcat camera trap monitoring protocols., Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No. 899.
But the most extensive surveys of all were the most recent: the camera-trap surveys run by SWA between 2015-2020 in six ‘Wildcat Priority Areas’ across northern Scotland. It is worth noting that those six Priority Areas were chosen from nine locations, based on the prior survey work carried out by Littlewood et al. (2014) that showed little or no evidence of wildcat presence in most potential sites. The areas selected all had some recent evidence of ‘wildcat’ presence (where a wildcat is defined using a pelage score threshold). They were the largest camera trap surveys ever carried out for wildcats worldwide and remain the largest systematic camera surveys in Scotland (80-140 camera traps spaced 1.5km apart across suitable wildcat habitat for 60 days – based on the recommendations from Newey et al. 2015). The surveys followed the methodology developed by Dr Kilshaw (with the exception that 1 camera was used per camera station, rather than two, to allow greater geographical coverage) and were conducted annually/biannually over winter in all six Priority Areas. The Priority Areas were all between 100-450km2 in size, the largest being the Morvern peninsula on the west coast. Surveys repeatedly identified no phenotypic wildcats. Not only that, SWA collected genetic data from roadkill cats across the whole of northern Scotland, and from trapped cats (caught during trap-neuter-release programmes of feral domestic cats) within Priority Areas. SWA also collected public sightings data for 5 years, and continue to do so, via iRecord. Furthermore, SWA partners invested over 10,000 camera-trap nights, at 268 camera locations, surveying over 30 other areas outwith the six Wildcat Priority Areas. Only three possible wildcats were identified in the process.
After assessing all the data collected during the 5-year period, from camera trap surveys, genetic work, public sightings, and roadkill analysis, SWA did not find evidence of significant, viable wildcat populations. The lack of any wildcats was so alarming that SWA commissioned the IUCN to review the conservation activity while the project was still ongoing, because the project could no longer justify the in-situ conservation measures, which were designed to protect existing wildcat populations, when there was so little evidence of any wildcats remaining. This information is all described in the report by Breitenmoser et al. (2019) and will be detailed in forthcoming reports from SWA.
Finally, we’d like to refer to the current status of the remaining ‘wildcat’ population. This is clearly illustrated by this recent exhaustive genetic analysis by Senn et al. (2019), also referenced by Breitenmoser et al. (2019) and freely available online:
Distinguishing the victim from the threat: SNP‐based methods reveal the extent of introgressive hybridization between wildcats and domestic cats in Scotland and inform future in situ and ex situ management options for species restoration – Senn – 2019 – Evolutionary Applications – Wiley Online Library
This study analyses genetic data from hundreds of samples dating from across the past century and conclusively demonstrates that the wild-living cat population is a ‘hybrid swarm’. It also highlights that there have been no ‘wildcats’ identified in field samples from the past decade that reach the genetic threshold required to be considered a ‘wildcat’ as opposed to a hybrid.
We appreciate that this letter is lengthy and contains a lot of detail on publications, but we felt it was necessary to be thorough in our response to Mr Woodfield’s blog. Misleading information such as this significantly undermines the urgency of genuine wildcat conservation efforts by perpetuating the myth that “wildcats are still out there; we just haven’t looked hard enough”. Yes, there may still be some wild-living wildcats in Scotland, but it is extremely unlikely that there is a viable population remaining hidden. This is a very sad reality to face, but the extensive research efforts cited above built the foundations for our current project, which offers hope for the wildcat as we work towards restoring this iconic species to Scotland.
We understand that there is a lot of media information about wildcat conservation in Scotland, some of which can be confusing, particularly when misleading or factually incorrect information is shared. So, for anyone who would like us to elaborate on anything we’ve discussed, or those who have any further questions about wildcat conservation efforts in Scotland, past or present, please do get in touch with us directly.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.
The Saving Wildcats Team
savingwildcats.org.uk | @saveourwildcats