Wildcats have been inhabiting Britain since the last Ice Age. They once roamed the lands of England and Whales in abundance but hunting and interbreeding with feral domestic cats have left the wildcat unseen in the wild in more than a century.
A few dozen have been seen in Scotland but experts warn that the animal is at grave risk of extinction.
To save the fluffy feline from being lost forever, Derek Gow, a farmer and expert on mammal reintroduction has built a breeding complex on his farm in Devon after obtaining some wildcats from a zoo.
It is England’s first breeding complex dedicated exclusively to the wildcat that will see the animals released in the country for the first time in 150 years.
Last week, Gow proudly shared a picture of his kittens on Twitter (3 males and 1 female), saying that it was “make or break time for the species in the UK” and that the kittens needed to grow fast to “provide any kind of future.”
Wildcat kittens bred this year have just been vaccinated and are looking well. 3 males 1 female. The captive population is essentially all that now remains. Is make or break time for the species in the UK. This breeding group needs to grow fast now to provide any kind of future pic.twitter.com/o8zcOp93v8
— Derek Gow (@gow_derek) October 26, 2019
While his kindle of kittens is currently at a modest 4, Gow wants to have a population big enough to breed 150 wildcat kittens every year to be released into the wild when they reach adulthood.
The British wildcat looks a lot like your beloved domestic pet but larger with a wider face and thicker fur — so perhaps they might resemble that ragtag, un-neutered cat on the corner that your average family cat will cross the street to avoid.
They were once thought by some to be man-eating predators but in reality, these cats are super shy and avoid humans at all costs.
Gow’s project is part-funded by Ben Goldsmith, an environmentalist and the brother of Minister for The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra,) Zac Goldsmith.
Ben Goldsmith told The Telegraph: “The British reputation for loving wildlife belies the fact that we have been more successful at eradicating our own than almost any other country on Earth. However a new movement for piecing back together our fragmented natural heritage is growing up around us, with the support of the Government whose own 25 Year Environment Plan calls for the creation of an ambitious national nature recovery network.
“Water voles, pine martens, beavers, wild boar, white-tailed eagles, cranes, great bustards and white storks have all returned to Britain in recent years centuries after we wiped them out.
“Wildcats were once widespread across Britain, but were extinguished from England and Wales by gamekeepers during the nineteenth century. A tiny remnant population managed to cling on in Scotland, somehow. I couldn’t be more excited about this project to breed wildcats in captivity for the purpose of reintroducing them back into the English and Welsh landscape, where they belong”.
Defra is creating a code of best practice for releasing the animals into the wild, but because the wildcat is still found in the wild in Scotland, a licence will not be required to release them in England.
Defra said: “The movement and release of any species in England, including wildcats, 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.”
The National Farmers’ Union has expressed some concerns about potential wildcat populations near areas of agricultural activity The Telegraph reports that Gow is confident that he can work with farmers to ensure these fears are quashed.
It is also thought that the cats will help to control Britain’s ever-expanding grey squirrel population.
As well as saving the wildcat, Gow has already been part of plans to reintroduce water voles and beavers in many parts of Britain.
Laurie Davies Adams