Their nine lives may be running out but if a major project works, Scottish wildcats could eventually roam the nation once again, finds Sandra Dick

Somewhere between the polar bear, the Bactrian camel and the Japanese macaque, Felis silvestris, among the rarest of them all, is usually found hiding behind a cairn, up a tree or curled up in a ball, snoozing.

At noon most days, however, visitors to the Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig near Aviemore will be treated to a fleeting glimpse of its bushy tail, mean green-yellow eyes and thick fur, as one of the nation’s most elusive creatures emerges to snatch a lump of meat for lunch before retreating to the shadows.

For most park visitors, that brief glimpse of the Scottish wildcats is at the top of their list of must-see attractions, possibly alongside Hamish the juvenile polar bear, a national treasure and the first cub born in the UK for 25 years, and the Amur tiger.

What they won’t see, however, is a massive behind-the-scenes effort spanning the UK and Europe, and which it’s hoped will throw a lifeline to ensuring Scottish wildcats – 70 times more endangered than the giant panda – will not just be around for generations to come, but could eventually become established in locations right across Scotland.

Tucked out of sight on a patch of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s park which is out of bounds to visitors, a new wildcat reintroduction centre is about to become "ground zero" for the survival of a fragile species entwined in Scottish national identity but currently in a fierce catfight for its very survival.

A combination of cross-breeding with feral and domestic cats, habitat loss, road accidents, historic persecution and disease has all but wiped out the purest of Scotland’s treasured wildcat population.

Left to their own devices, the tiny number with genes not already severely diluted from mating with outsiders, will dwindle, fade and disappear.

Hopes are now pinned on a £5.5 million scheme led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and, almost certainly, some amorous intervention from the species’ closest European cousins to help the Scottish wildcat get back on its feet.

By the end of this year, the first wildcats will be in settled in at the new reintroduction centre, 12 breeding pairs which – assuming nature takes it course – should produce enough healthy offspring to see 60 wildcats reintroduced to carefully picked spots in the Cairngorms over a three-year period.

Eventually it’s hoped they could be reintroduced elsewhere in Scotland – raising the possibility of the creatures becoming commonplace across the country.

Although, according to David Barclay, cat conservation project officer with the RZSS who currently oversees the 107 wildcats in the UK-wide breeding programme, the first challenge is to save the handful of remaining Scottish wildcats from extinction.

“There’s perhaps a very small number of wildcats left in Scotland,” he admits. “And we have a lot of evidence that says the population is non-viable.

“Without putting more wildcats back, they will almost certainly go extinct in the next few years.

“Wildcats are in that short list of animals that are iconic species for Scotland, such as the golden eagle and the red squirrel,” he adds.

“For Scotland not to have wildcats would be a very sad day.”

At Kincraig, a recent £3.2million EU LIFE grant added to funding from the Garfield Weston Foundation, the National Trust for Scotland, the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the European Nature Trust, has enabled work to start on building the new centre.

A recruitment drive is now under way to find 16 staff while plans are being drawn up for a major campaign to encourage domestic cat owners to neuter their pets to avoid the main threat to wildcats’ future, hybridisation.

Feral or domestic cats that enter the wildcat reserve will be trapped, neutered, vaccinated and released.

Most of the 12 breeding pairs are expected to be sourced mainly from the UK-wide wildcat breeding programme but some are likely to make the journey from Europe, in particular Spain, where wildcats have been found to share physical similarities to their Scottish relations, and populations are more stable.

It may sound like a further erosion of the Scottish wildcats’ precious gene pool, however Mr Barclay insists the European presence will strengthen, not weaken, the wildcats’ chances of survival.

“The European wildcats will improve the gene pool,” he states. “The cat we have is a European wildcat, it’s just a different population that’s more critically endangered.

“If we have to bring some cats from Europe – and it would be a relatively small number – we would want to bring them from a population where we feel that there are similarities with Scottish cat.

“And Spanish wildcats look very similar to Scottish wildcats.

“If you bring wildcats from Europe, you are bringing new genetic material which gives Scottish wildcats a boost in terms of the gene pool.”

The fight to save Scotland’s wildcats has already crossed international boundaries: as well as working with Scottish Natural Heritage, the Cairngorms National Park Authority and Forestry and Land Scotland, the RSZZ Saving Wildcats project – the only official wildcats project in the country – is partnered with Swedish wildlife park Norden’s Ark, and Spain’s Junta De Andalucía, which led the successful recovery of the Iberian lynx.

It has been boosted by the arrival of two potential "Adam and Eve" wildcats: male and female, both accidentally trapped, both found to have surprisingly strong wildcat genes.

While the male is now at an English zoo where it’s hoped nature will soon play its part in boosting wildcat numbers, the female, Lossie, has already produced five kittens from two litters.

Last year, one of her offspring, Katrine, delivered her first litter – four kittens, each carrying on its tiny shoulders the future of a species which has roamed Scotland’s hills since the Ice Age.

“For next few years it’s about getting all the right tools in one place so we can create a viable, sustainable population of wildcats in one location,” adds Mr Barclay.

“Once we have been through that process and know that the reintroduction technology works, then we can replicate that across Scotland.

“The crucial element is controlling the threat: we can’t release them until the threat is removed, and one of the biggest threats in hybrid and domestic cats.”

The reintroduction of wildcats would follow in the wake of the reintroduction of sea eagles, water voles and beavers to the wild – each native to Scotland but brought to extinction through hunting and loss of habitat.

The wildcats’ return could also pave the way for other animals including lynx and wolves. Campaign group Rewilding Britain has also suggested the reintroduction of long-gone species including the dalmatian pelican, bison, boar and moose.

Worryingly, however, are further signs that Scottish wildcats – and in some cases their European cousins – are hanging by the thinnest of threads.

Last month an international genetic study of wildcats in 13 European countries published in the journal Conservation Genetics warned it had failed to identify a single pure wildcat in Scotland.

Across Europe, wildcat numbers were also found to be affected by hybridisation, with the first example of a hybrid cat in the Eastern Alps of Austria.

“In Scotland, we found exclusively hybrids of different classes, indicating hybridisation has been occurring for several generations,” it states. “All samples from Scotland were identified as hybrids… supporting previous findings that the genetic integrity of that wildcat population has been seriously compromised.”

It also presented a dire warning for the future of the species.

“Frequent hybridisation with the domestic cat may regionally threaten the genetic integrity of the European wildcat, as documented by the example of the wildcat in Scotland,” it adds, “potentially leading even to the genetic extinction of local populations.”