Page last updated at 23:39 GMT, Monday, 4 May 2009 00:39 UK

New project to protect wildcats


Douglas Richardson, from Highland Wildlife Park, on protecting wildcats

A new project has been launched with the aim of giving the endangered Scottish wildcat greater protection.

The Cairngorms Wildcat Project, which was launched by Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham, has the backing of various agencies.

About 400 pure breds are thought to be left, with their survival threatened by cross-breeding with domestic cats.

The project involves raising awareness, neutering feral domestic cats and "wildcat-friendly" predator control.

The Cairngorms National Park is seen as a stronghold for the species.

The park authority, Forestry Commission Scotland, the Highland Wildlife Park's owners the Royal Zoological Society Scotland, Scottish Gamekeepers Association and Scottish Natural Heritage are involved in the new project.

It was launched at the Highland Wildlife Park near Kincraig, which has captive wildcats.

Scottish wildcats can be very difficult to tell apart from domestic and feral cats.

Larger than pet cats, they have grey-brown striped fur and a short bushy tail.

Found in upland areas north of the central belt
Can hunt mammals up to the size of hares and fawns
The mating season runs from January to March and kittens are usually born in May

They are shy and mostly nocturnal and prey on small mammals. A female can have up to eight kittens in her den.

Wildcats were once widespread throughout the UK, but by the 19th Century were thought to be extinct.

Separately, the Scottish Wildcat Association (SWA) led by Steve Piper has achieved charitable status

Mr Piper described previous government agency attempts to survey and protect the wildcat as "half-hearted".

He said the animal was a unique predator that had been resident in Britain for at least two million years, sharing space with everything from woolly mammoths to cave lions and surviving entire ice ages.

But he said more recently it had "fallen foul" of persecution, urban development and, increasingly, hybridisation with domestic feral cats.

The film-maker appealed to farmers and owners of shooting estates to help protect the species.

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