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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 February 2008, 10:59 GMT
Wildcat population to be surveyed
Wildcat and kitten at Wildwood Discovery Park, Kent
A wildcat and kitten at Wildwood Discovery Park, Kent

Walkers in the Highlands are being asked to help discover the true numbers of one of Britain's most secretive creatures - the Scottish wildcat.

It became extinct in England and Wales 150 years ago but continues to be sighted in Scottish woods and moorland.

Some estimates suggest just 400 survive - although there could be up to 4,000.

Now Scottish Natural Heritage is asking everyone who uses the countryside to take part in a year-long survey and report sightings of the timid animal.

The conservation body hopes to assess numbers and distribution.

The count is being carried out as part of the Scottish Government's Species Action Framework and is an effort to safeguard the rare mammal.

Last survivor

Minister for Environment Michael Russell is due to launch the survey at the Highland Wildlife Park, near Kincraig, which has captive purebred wildcats.

However, Adrian Davies, who is co-ordinating the research, said it helped if people had seen a wildcat before and knew what they looked like.

Thick brown coat with distinctive black stripes
Few spotted markings or white patches
Black and brown rings on tail, with black tip
Source: The Scottish Wildcat Association
He said: "There's obviously a number of occasions where it might actually be quite difficult to determine a wildcat.

"They're often seen at dusk and at dawn or in the dark so it can be quite difficult to determine what a wildcat is in the field."

The animal is the last surviving native member of the cat family to be found in the wild in Britain.

It has been listed in the Species Action Framework for conservation effort over the next five years in an attempt to improve its habitat and reduce threats of cross breeding with feral domestic cats.

The Scottish wildcat has survived by clinging on in habitat margins between mountain and moorland and forest and fields, preying on rabbits, small birds and mammals.

Map of wildcat distribution


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