Fur flies over Scottish wildcats' fate

By Kevin McKenna

Only 35 pure Scottish wildcats are thought to exist in the Highlands. Photo / AP
Only 35 pure Scottish wildcats are thought to exist in the Highlands. Photo / AP

Are these the final few days of the Scottish wildcat, now numbering perhaps as few as 35 scattered beasts?

That is the fear of some supporters of Scotland's most vivid species, and it is leading to an almighty row over a creature that has graced the Highlands for around 10,000 years.

The wildcat's imminent extinction may have been camouflaged by the existence of a counterfeit cat - a feline facsimile that looks like a wildcat but whose genealogy is far from pure.

Last week the Scottish Government and its leading environmental agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, in response to insistent calls for action to protect this endangered species, announced a £2 million ($3.9 million), six-year strategic plan to reverse the decline by reducing cross-breeding with domestic and feral cats and curbing exposure to feline diseases.

The government masterplan is as fake as the DNA of the hybrids masquerading as pure-bloods, said Steve Piper, founder of the Scottish Wildcat Association and the country's foremost authority on the preservation of the species.

In short, anything that looks roughly two-thirds wildcat will be classified as a wildcat, so in the time it takes to say "re-contextualised" the population has ballooned from 35 individuals to thousands; quite a few pet cat owners worldwide will be waking up to find they have a government-approved Scottish wildcat purring at the end of the bed.

So is the Government and its main species conservation body signalling, by stealth, the extinction of the unalloyed, pure Scottish wildcat?

Piper said if the Government diverted just a few hundred thousand pounds to efforts being made in the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, where the Scottish Wildcat Association has been working to breed the last cats in isolation, the final few dozen might yet have a future. "It seems, though, that they are simply not prepared to take the risk of spending that money without the guarantee of success."

A spokesman for Scottish Natural Heritage said: "Steve Piper's opinion is not one that we share. And we've no idea where he gets his figures from."

The Scottish wildcat thrives on its own, hunting rabbits, birds and rodents. The hybridised wildcat, though, will exhibit few such solitary tendencies.

- Observer

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