IT is a species that has been native to the country for around 9,000 years, and has survived the Little Ice Age.

But numbers have been virtually decimated because of persecution, habit fragmentation and interbreeding, leaving fewer than 100 remaining in the wild.

Now an animal conservation charity wants to build a national wildlife reintroductions centre in Scotland’s largest national park in a bid to save the endangered Scottish wildcat “from the brink of extinction”.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) wants to build the centre on land in the Cairngorms National Park as “a matter of urgency” for the elusive native species.

Plans include a state-of-the-art breeding facility, with wildcat experts and a dedicated veterinary unit to bolster the diminishing population of the so-called Highland tiger.

The RZSS says the cats would go through a “rigorous training regime” before being released into the Scottish Highlands. The centre could also help save other threatened species, such as insects and birds.

The charity, which already looks after wildcats at its existing Highland Wildlife Park in the Cairngorms National Park, has now launched an appeal for donations from the public to help turn the plans in to reality.

A charity spokeswoman said: “Most of us yearn to catch a glimpse of the glorious Scottish wildcat, yet never do. If we don’t act immediately, we never will.

“The wildcat is teetering on the edge. Though revered, wildcats in Scotland have been persecuted for centuries. Add to that habitat fragmentation, and interbreeding with domestic cats, and it is doubtful that their numbers in the wild now reach three figures.

“The wildcat’s survival now hangs tenuously on a dramatic plan to create a National Wildlife Reintroductions Centre, in the Cairngorms National Park.

“This state-of-the-art breeding facility will bring together wildcat experts, a dedicated veterinary unit, and a specialised pre-release training programme, focusing initially on wildcats, yet with the flexibility to help other priority species in the future.”

The mammal is the only wild member of the cat family to survive in Britain. Although they were once found throughout mainland Britain, they have only managed to survive in Scotland. They are the same subspecies of wildcat found in continental Europe, but has been separate since the end of the last ice age around 9,000 years ago.

Besides hybridisation, other threats to the population include historical and accidental persecution, disease and collisions with vehicles on roads.

Although it bears a striking relationship to the tabby cat with regard to its markings, the wildcat can be recognized by its distinctive bushy tail which features black rings, a thick blunt tip, and no stripe down the middle. It also never has white feet.

A breeding programme, which is co-ordinated by Scottish Wildcat Action, has been working to restore viable populations of the mammal. The last wildcat to be born in captivity was born at Chester Zoo in August. RZSS is one of multiple partners in the programme.

As part of RZSS’s appeal, Scottish wildlife filmmaker Gordon Buchanan narrated a video where he described the wildcat as “Britain’s most threatened mammal... a totemic creature that is equally revered in Scottish culture as it is a precious part of our fauna”.

Mr Buchanan said: “As a matter of urgency, ambitious plans are under way to build a national wildlife reintroduction centre in the Cairngorms National Park. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland will run this state-of-the-art facility.

“It will provide the perfect environment for breeding wildcats with the aim of releasing them to re-establish viable populations in key locations.

“The Royal Zoological Society and their partners will use the innovative centre with its expert veterinary provision long in to the future.

“Over time, this could help to save other threatened mammals, birds and insects.”

Appealing for donations, Mr Buchanan added: “Scotland’s wildcats are but a whisker away from extinction. Current estimates suggest there could be less than 100 remaining in the wild.

“If we do not take immediate action, it will be too late. If we don’t, the fierce green fire in the eyes of the Highland tiger will be extinguished forever.”

To donate, visit the RZSS website.