Wildcats could be released in England for the first time in hundreds of years as the Wildlife Trusts recruit an expert to help introduce them back into the wild.
After being hunted to extinction, the European wildcat is now the UK’s rarest native mammal. They are larger than the domestic cat, which are bred from the wildcats of Africa. It has not been spotted in southern England since the 16th century, but now it looks possible that the animal will be found stalking the landscape once more.
After the Vincent Wildlife Trust found the brambly woodland of Devon and Cornwall the most suitable place for the fluffy predators to be released, the local Wildlife Trust has begun taking steps in earnest to see if they can reintroduce them.
The charity is hiring a wildcat officer, who will be tasked with finding out whether releasing the mammals is feasible.
Once widespread across the UK, the cats are found only in the remote reaches of Scotland. This small population is judged no longer viable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with 30 wild animals showing a high degree of hybridisation with domestic cats.
Peter Burgess, from the Devon Wildlife Trust, is partially responsible for the successful beaver trial on the River Otter, which boasts a thriving wild population of the once locally extinct rodents. He is now looking at how wildcats could be reintroduced by the Wildlife Trust in Devon.
“Preliminary feasibility studies have shown that there is really strong potential for them in the south-west of England,” he told the Guardian. “Now, we are bringing it to the next level, looking at any impact they would have on the ecosystem, and seeing if there is support in the local community.”
Burgess hopes it will be possible for them to be reintroduced. “They used to be really widespread across the whole of the UK and are now our rarest mammal on the verge of extinction.”
The wildcats would bring ecological benefits, according to Burgess, as “an important predator which has been removed from the landscape”.
The cats would be released from a “stud book” of genetically strong wildcats, which could one day produce kittens to be released. This has been created by both zoos and private breeders.
One of the reservations people have about the release of wildcats is that there are so many domestic cats out in the landscape now that there are concerns about hybridisation. “They tend to avoid domestic cats, but we will be spending the 18 months looking for feral cat populations,” Burgess said.
Those interested in rewilding news will have been following the long saga of beaver releases. The process of releasing beavers back into the wild has been slow, but if there are no community or habitat concerns it is hoped that this project could move much more quickly, as wildcats are a native species with few regulations around their release.
Burgess said: “We’ll be adhering to Defra’s code for species reintroductions – assessing impact on protected sites, for example. We’d have to have a habitat regulations assessment but even without needing a specific license, we’d be seeking government support.”
Some farmers are concerned wildcats could disturb their livestock or eat their sheep, but experts say this would not happen as wildcats like to hide and rarely take anything larger than a small rodent.
Derek Gow, a farmer turned rewilder based in Devon, is helping with the project and hopes it means wildcats could be back in the landscape by 2025.
“I’d like to think we had free-living cats in England again by 2025. Once we have the feasibility information we will look at how we produce cats which we can support in going out into the wilder environment. It’s a relatively straightforward process. To be clear, everything will be done responsibly within the IUCN guidelines,” Gow said.
He said the project was incredibly important. “We want to do this responsibly, but we don’t want to talk for 50 years and do absolutely bollocks-all. It’s a little animal which is very highly endangered and it is going to disappear from this island within our lifetimes if we don’t act now. We need to get it back to the habitats it used to occupy. It’s not just about doing something that’s novel, it’s about saving one of our most iconic animals from extinction. We wiped it out because we wanted its thick dense fur and didn’t want it eating our valuable rabbits.”