Wildcat Haven, the conservation group who rescued the Scottish wildcats, have placed the kittens in a centre in the West Highlands in Scotland, with hopes of re-releasing them into the wild soon.
There are only 35 pure Scottish wildcats remaining in the world, highlighting the importance of the discovery – the kittens provide a priceless boost to saving this species in the wild.
The conservation group often receive reports about wildcat sightings, yet they are often other species. The sighting of orphaned wildcat kittens is extremely rare.
“It seemed likely they had been abandoned or orphaned and were in grave danger,” said Wildcat Haven’s chief scientific advisor, Dr Paul O’Donoghue, after the kittens were found close to a road.
Wildcat Haven was granted permission by Scottish Natural Heritage to rescue the kittens under the condition that they were orphans. Just as fieldworkers were preparing to make a capture 24 hours later, they spotted the original eye witness carrying the two vulnerable kittens towards them inside his coat.
Wildlife filmmaker Steve Piper, who arrived shortly afterwards, said: We went straight out to set remote cameras and bait to make absolutely sure there wasn’t a mother around looking for them.
“By next morning, after some food and water, the timid kittens had transformed entirely and we had two spitting balls of fury in their place. They were little mini wildcats stamping, hissing and growling.”
Piper continue searching the area for several days, but was unsuccessful: “Perhaps she was run over, perhaps snared, sadly there are a lot of threats out there for wildcats; these two orphans were incredibly lucky to be found in time.”
The kittens underwent health checks and were successfully moved to a specially designed wildcat rescue facility in the West Highlands, set up by Highland Titles.
"We set it up last year,” explained Highland Titles Founder and conservationist, Dr Peter Bevis. “I’d heard about injured wildcats getting handed in to vets and ending up in a zoo which just seemed wrong to me. I thought we could fence off some of our forest and that would be a good place for an injured wildcat to recover before being released back into the wild. I never expected that we’d have two orphaned wildcat kittens coming to stay though!”
Wildcat Haven’s vet, Nick Morphet, kept an eye on the kittens, who, within half an hour of their arrival at the rescue centre, were out of their den exploring their new surroundings.
“I am overjoyed that we’ve been able to give these two orphaned wildcat kittens a lifeline,” comments O’Donoghue. “They’re safe in the largest wildcat enclosure in Europe, Highland Titles have literally put a fence round a forest, there’s even a stream. It’s a near-wild environment for these priceless kittens to grow into adults with our whole team looking out for them as they do so.
“I hope everyone across the Highlands remembers we have this facility available; orphaned kittens or injured adults, we can provide them a safe place to recover, and ensure their return to the wild. We must do everything we can to keep as many wildcats in the wild as possible. The look in these kitten's eyes tells you immediately that they don't belong in a cage.”
“Once these kittens are old enough they will be released at the first opportunity. Any wildcat that comes here will be returned to the wild. The purest wildcats are in the wild; they can be protected there, and it’s where they belong.”
However, Scottish Wildcat Action Priority Areas Manager, Dr Roo Campbell, responded to Scottish Wildcat Haven's press release, saying:
“It is virtually impossible to tell whether kittens are tabby domestic cats or wildcat kitten at a young age. We wouldn’t recommend making an assessment until around six months of age. That these kittens were gathered up by hand indicates they were extremely young, probably under eight weeks old. A nursing mother wildcat will temporarily leave the kittens to go hunting and could be scared off by lots of human activity around the kittens, so we must hope that every care was taken to ensure these were truly abandoned.
“Secondly, when working with wild individuals held in captivity, we have the luxury of using the combined pelage (coat markings) and genetic scoring to assess whether an individual is a wildcat. In this case, we would recommend that both tests are done before any statement is made on whether these are wildcat kittens. Unfortunately, such is the poor status of the Scottish wildcat population, these kittens are more likely to be feral-hybrid cats than of wildcats.
“Finally, assuming these are indeed wildcat kittens, when conducting releases of wild animals from a captive situation, we would hope that best practice as set out in the Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations is followed. Returning these individuals to the wild without ensuring that there exists a viable population in the same area and that risks such as hybridisation and disease have been mitigated against. In this context we would highlight that a suitable release location should be one where there is a programme of trap neuter vaccinate and return of feral cats, such as conducted by Scottish Wildcat Action.”
Watch a video of a rare pure breed Scottish wildcat here.
Experts state that those lucky enough to discover Scottish wildcat kittens should not assume they have been abandoned. Their mother may have just left them to go hunting. Report any sightings to firstname.lastname@example.org with the location and your contact number.
Main image ©Steve Piper
Choose a subscription offer to suit you and benefit from generous savings on the shop price, free UK delivery and discounts off special editions and back issues.