Orphaned kittens may give Scottish wildcat a lifeline
There's new hope for world's rarest feline with discovery of two weak and dehydrated little ones
The world’s rarest cat has received an unexpected population boost after two orphaned kittens were discovered in Scotland.
Just 35 Scottish wildcats were thought to remain in the wild in Britain, and the subspecies is in danger of dying out because the animals often breed with feral domesticated cats, creating hybrids. But the conservation group Wildcat Haven has rescued two weak and dehydrated kittens that were spotted and photographed by a member of the public in the east highlands.
It is likely the pair would not have survived on their own without their mother, and they were edging closer to a road where they could have been hit by traffic.
The discovery has boosted the population of Scottish wildcats by 6%, to 37 animals.
“I almost fell off my chair when I saw the photos,” said Wildcat Haven’s chief scientific adviser, Dr Paul O’Donoghue. “The markings looked amazing, far better than any kitten I’d seen in a zoo, but in a very exposed place. It seemed likely they had been abandoned or orphaned and were in grave danger.
“I am overjoyed that we’ve been able to give these two orphaned wildcat kittens a lifeline.”
No sign of mum
The Scottish wildcat is a subspecies of the European wildcat and, although it is only now native to Scotland, it was once widespread through England and Wales. It is the only wild feline left in Britain and almost became extinct in the 19th century after being trapped and shot by groundskeepers to protect game birds.
It was given protected status under the Wildlife and Countryside Act in 1981.
Because the wildcats are protected, the team had to apply to Scottish Natural Heritage to rescue and rehabilitate the kittens. They plan to release them back into the wild when they are older and stronger, the first time anyone has attempted that with a Scottish wildcat in decades.
Wildlife filmmaker Steve Piper travelled to the area to make sure the mother was not nearby. “We went straight out to set remote cameras and bait to make absolutely sure there wasn’t a mother around looking for them,” he said.
“There was nothing on the cameras, no tracks, no eyeshine or calling in the night. Perhaps she was run over, perhaps snared. Sadly, there are a lot of threats out there for wildcats; these two orphans were incredibly lucky to be found in time.
“By next morning, after some food and water, the timid kittens had transformed entirely and we had two spitting balls of fury in their place. They were little mini wildcats stamping, hissing and growling, displaying all the explosive aggression typical of the species, which is reputed to be untameable.”
The kittens have been taken to a specially designed wildcat rescue facility in the West Highlands established by conservation group, Highland Titles, where they are being monitored by Wildcat Haven’s vet, Nick Morphet.
Highland Titles founder and conservationist, Dr Peter Bevis, said: “I’d heard about injured wildcats getting handed into vets and ending up in a zoo, which just seemed wrong to me. I thought we could fence off some of our forest and that would be a good place for an injured wildcat to recover before being released back into the wild.
“I never expected that we’d have two orphaned wildcat kittens coming to stay though.”
O’Donoghue added: “Once these kittens are old enough they will be released at the first opportunity. The purest wildcats are in the wild; they can be protected there, and it’s where they belong, not in a cage selling zoo tickets. These kittens will be a huge boost for the species in the wild.”
Hybrids and hunters
The Scottish wildcat is thought to be the inspiration for the mythological Scottish creature, Cat sith, which was said to steal the souls of the dead before they were buried.
There are about 80 Scottish wildcats currently in captivity, including at Chester Zoo and the Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in Kent. The Scottish wildcat can interbreed with domestic cats, which has given rise to a hybrid known as the Kellas cat.
Wildcats are only usual seen at twilight or during the night, although they can hunt at all hours when food is scarce. The Scottish wildcat has a reputation as untameable, and the animal features on the crests of the clan Chattan, alongside the motto, “Touch not the cat bot (without) a glove”.
– © The Daily Telegraph