An attempt is underway to reintroduce the wildcat back into England and Wales after it became extinct 150 years ago.
The European wildcat, whilst native to Europe, is actually a subspecies of African wildcat. Whilst they may have a size and appearance more akin to domesticated cats, the wildcat actually has more in common with bigger cats, most notably leopards.
Once a common sight in the English countryside and rumored to have been present since the end of the last Ice Age, they were hunted to critical levels by our predecessors as they proved competition for the rabbits and game. After the industrial revolution they were were hunted for sport which all but wiped out the species from our lands for good. The wildcat once had a fearsome reputation as a man-eating predator, but is in actual fact quite a shy creature that tends to stay away from humans where possible.
Whilst there are still a small number left in Scotland, these are critically endangered. In fact, due to hybridization – wildcats breeding with domestic cats – it is believed that the Scottish wildcat in its ‘pure’ form is now completely extinct. It was even deemed as being ‘no longer viable’ by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).
In order to gain a better understanding of what such a huge undertaking involves a group of British conservationist flew out to Sweden where they have been training with Marianne Hartman, the woman responsible for the successful reintroduction of Wildcats back into Bavaria, Germany. A feasibility study was carried out by the Vincent Wildlife Trust which identified rural Devon, Cornwall, and areas in mid-Wales as being suitable environments for reintroduction, as despite what most people assume, they prefer a mosaic of well-hedged farmland than thick forest-like terrains.
But what does this mean for farmers? There here is obviously a concern as to the impact this will have on livestock, and if there will be any legal protections to stop farmers from killing wildcats. However, Hartmann has stated that Wildcats won’t take lambs – they may help themselves to any free range chickens but only tend to take one at a time unlike foxes. In fact they could even help farmers as their natural prey includes rabbits and rodents, reducing the population of these ‘pests’. The wildcat could also dominate local feral cat populations as well as help to decrease the grey squirrel population, a non-native species often seen as a ‘pest’.
A new wildcat facility has already been established in Devon and currently housed three pairs of wildcat. Set up by Derek Gow, the man responsible for breeding and reintroducing voles and beavers into several parts of Britain, he is calling for more captive breeding facilities to help push this reintroduction. He proposes forming partnerships with other organisations which would allow wildcats to be transported from facilities in Sweden and Germany to the UK, with an aim to produce 150 kittens a year. Pictures of what this enclosure looks like can be seen on Gow’s Twitter account.
There are still a lot of considerations which need to be fully addressed before the reintroduction of this species can go ahead. A Defra spokesman has said that “the movement and release of any species in England, including wildcat, should follow the International Union for Conservation of Nature guidelines. These guidelines ensure there are clear environmental and socioeconomic benefits to gain from releasing the animals and that their welfare is maintained.” However, with the uncertainty around the UK’s position in the EU and any sort of laws or guidelines we may have to adhere to is certainly up for debate.
A spokesman for the National Farmers Union have also said that “Any species introduction, particularly if it has been absent from this country for many decades or even centuries, can have massive impacts on the many benefits that the countryside and farming delivers. The landscape could be very different and this poses potential risks.”
The reintroduction of wildcats is an exciting step in efforts to try and re-balance our natural ecosystem and try to undo the damage that humanity has inflicted on our local environments. With the first wildcats expected to be released in three years time it will provide an interesting insight into the impact that reintroducing now-extinct species back into the wild.
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