Returning the European wildcat to Britain
The European wildcat is one of the rarest and most endangered mammals in Britain. Durrell and VWT aim to pool their knowledge and experience to establish a self-sustaining population of the species outside of Scotland, where it is currently found only in the remote Highlands.
There will be many steps to ensuring a successful reintroduction, which is still a few years away. As a first step, VWT and Durrell have undertaken an initial study to identify potential landscapes for reintroduction. The next stage will be to conduct more in-depth ecological and social feasibility studies within these areas to find out which will be the most suitable as a release site. Some of this detailed work will be carried out in collaboration with the University of Exeter through a joint PhD studentship, which is due to start later this year.
Durrell’s Chief Scientist Prof Carl Jones says, “The wildcat disappeared from England and Wales only about a century ago. It was wiped out by senseless persecution during a time when we considered all predators as vermin. It is now time to consider how to restore this shy and beautiful species which plays such an important role in our environment. A healthy wildcat population will help restore the balance in the ecosystem by controlling numbers of prey animals, such as rabbits and rodents, and predators such as foxes through competition for food.”
Both Durrell and VWT base their conservation work on scientific research and have the essential skills and experience of working both at national and international scales. Durrell has a wealth of expertise in intensive species-recovery programmes, in particular in captive breeding and species reintroductions. Until recently, this has mostly been on projects worldwide; however, with Durrell’s ‘Rewild our World’ strategy, there is a new commitment to begin conservation programmes in the UK. A partnership with VWT is ideal as they have worked for over 40 years to monitor and recover mammal species of conservation concern in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. A core focus of both VWT and Durrell is delivery of conservation that takes full account of the views and needs of local communities, which will be a crucial part of the wildcat project. Prof Carl Jones adds, “There is still a lot to do before we can release wildcats, we will have to breed them in captivity, so we have enough to reintroduce, and identify the key places where they can live. Most importantly we will work with the local communities to ensure they understand the importance of the cats and are happy for their return.”
Photos by Helen Haden & Mark Williams