British conservationists are being trained to breed wildcats in captivity so they can be reintroduced back into rural parts of Cornwall, Devon and central Wales.
Despite looking like their domestic counterparts, wildcats are untameable animals that are closer in their behaviour to big cats like leopards.
Extensive culling by gamekeepers led to wildcats not being seen in England and Wales in around 150 years, although a small population remains in Scotland.
Such was their renowned ferocity, that one 15th-century hunting author noted: ‘If any beast has the devil’s strength in him, it is the wildcat.’
Although free-range farmers might lose the odd chicken to reintroduced wildcats, experts think they would be less disruptive than foxes and could help control pests.
Big cat expert and wildcat breeder Marianne Hartmann has been training British conservationists in the methods she used to reintroduce wildcats into Bavaria.
Target rural areas for reintroduction in the UK include those in Cornwall, Devon and mid-Wales, which would be the best suited habitats for the wildcats, a feasibility study by the Vincent Wildlife Trust has suggested.
It is a common misconception that the felines prefer to live among dense forest — in fact, they like to reside across well-hedged farmland.
Despite their reputation as beasts with ‘the devil’s strength’, to quote the writings of one 15th century hunter, culling has wasted wildcat populations.
They have not been recorded in the south of England since the 16th century, although a small population still remains in Scotland.
However, this clowder of cats has become unviable, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with only 30 member left in the population that shows a high level of hybridisation with domestic cats.
‘There’s nothing left of the Scottish population,’ ecologist Derek Gow, who has successfully reintroduced beavers and water voles in the UK, told the Guardian.
Mr Gow has recently set up a wildcat breeding facility in Devon.
Experts think that the hybridisation of the wildcats in Scotland occurred because gamekeepers so diminished the population through culling that the male wildcats were forced to mate with feral cats to survive.
‘It’s been a good effort,’ Mr Gow said of efforts to support the Scottish population.
‘But this is the last-chance saloon and we need to do things completely differently and have a big viable captive breeding population,’ he added.
‘We need to start doing this kind of restoration right now and on a much grander scale than we’ve ever contemplated before.’
The initial step in the reintroduction will be to breed enough wildcats in captivity to sustain a long-term release operation.
‘We need to bring animals from Swiss and German zoos, build up a stock and have captive cats that are capable of producing 150 kittens a year,’ said Mr Gow.
Wildcats are already being bred by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.
In Germany, Ms Hartmann had initially supplied 100 captive-bread wildcats to support a reintroduction programme that ultimately put around 700 of the felines back into the wild.
The project has even seen the burgeoning cat population expand across into the Czech Republic.
Ms Hartmann has much advice for prospective breeders on how to handle the easily-stressed animals — such as talking softly to them and offering more dens in enclosures in which the felines can hide and feel safe.
Her methods appear highly successful, with Ms Hartmann’s queens producing an average of four kittens per litter.
Most captive wildcats only birth one or two young at a time.
She trains the kittens to hunt using an automated feeder that releases dead mice on elastic cords.
Learning to time their pounce on the bouncing prey help the cats hone their killer instinct and practice the death-inducing bite they inflict on their preys’ necks.
As with the Scottish wildcat population, the primary hurdle to be overcome in reintroducing wildcats elsewhere in the UK will be preventing hybridisation with feral domestic cats.
Conservationists will need to remove large numbers feral cats from the chosen reintroduction areas before the wildcats can be set loose.
According to Ms Hartmann, however, hybridisation risks are overstated, as male wildcats mostly kill any domestic cats they encounter, rather than mating with them, unless they are unable to find a female wildcat to partner with during mating season.
Larger than their domestic counterparts, European wildcats are native to the continent and descended from the relatively tamer subspecies of African wildcat.
‘Wildcats look like the kitty at home but they are like leopards,’ said Ms Hartmann.
‘I’ve been working with leopards for many years and the only difference is size, and that leopards can get tame.’
‘If you hand-raise lions or tigers, they remain tame for the rest of their lives.
‘Wildcats cannot be tamed under any circumstances. This is very special.’
A code of best practice for reintroduction projects is being developed by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
However, a license to release wildcats in England will not be required as the animals can still be found in the wild in Scotland.
‘The movement and release of any species in England, including wildcat, should follow the International Union for Conservation of Nature guidelines,’ said a Defra spokesperson.
‘These guidelines ensure there are clear environmental and socioeconomic benefits to gain from releasing the animals, and that their welfare is maintained.’
While farmers might be initially alarmed at the prospect of untameable cats roaming across the British countryside, Ms Hartmann said that wildcats never attack lambs.
They would pose a threat to free-range chickens, she noted, however such activity would be less destructive than foxes, as the cats only take single birds at a time.
In contrast, wildcats preference for hunting pests like rabbits and rodents could be beneficial for farmers.
‘Wildcats are no kind of threat to people who are not subsistence farmers and we are not subsistence farmers in this country,’ said Mr Gow.
According to Ms Hartmann, the hurdles to reintroducing wildcats are 95% politics, 5% conservation and nothing to do with the animals themselves.
‘The most promising programme is in England and Wales,’ she said.
‘The wildcat was there historically, there is habitat left and the most challenging thing is the feral cats,’ she added.
‘If you manage to control that, it can be a big success.’
‘But a reintroduction is a lifetime’s work. It’s 20 to 30 years. It’s not just releasing animals.’