Stuart Benn, our Conservation Manager for the Highlands, discusses the elusive Scottish wildcat.
Despite a quarter of a century walking and travelling throughout the Scottish Highlands, I reckon I’ve seen fewer than a dozen wildcats. Most were animals crossing the road at night or at dawn, caught in the headlights, but the last sighting was the best. I was eagle surveying in the hills east of Loch Ness and heard a bird of prey alarm calling. Looking across the glen I saw a kestrel repeatedly divebombing something on the ground which turned out to be a wildcat. I watched it for a while before it slunk off into a juniper thicket. I wondered if it had a den in there with kittens but I chose not to investigate further and left it in peace.
At least, I think they were wildcats – they looked like wildcats, they behaved like I imagine wildcats should behave and they were in the sort of country that ‘felt’ right too. But it’s not as simple as that. This week, I was at the closing conference of the Cairngorms Wildcat Project, a three-year effort to find out more about these animals, raise awareness and deal with some of the problems they face. But one of the problems we face is to find an elusive and largely nocturnal animal in the first place. Fortunately, camera traps can do much of the work for us and have given us information that would otherwise be impossible to gather.
However, by far the biggest problem we have is working out what a wildcat actually is. Wildcats can mate with domestic cats producing a bewildering variety of hybrids some of which are practically indistinguishable visually and even genetically from totally pure wildcats. So, the best we can do is to decide what a ‘pure’ wildcat looks like and then try to protect it. But, with wildcats, that very quickly leads you into discussions about responsible pet ownership, neutering cats, potentially illegal activity in remote areas, captive breeding and the rest. Conservation can be a very difficult and complicated business.
Fortunately, conservation can be very simple too. Despite it still feeling more like winter than spring up here, a bee soon found the recently planted scabious/span>" target="_blank">scabious but we await some warmth before its mates join it. As I drove to the conference, the sleet slithered down the windscreen as Delius’ On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring came on the radio. I think it may be a while before I hear mine.