A CAMPAIGN group set up to save the Scottish wildcat has called for a forest in Aberdeenshire to receive official protection in a bid to protect a population of the critically endangered animals.

Wildcat Haven claims a third of the entire Scottish wildcat population could be present in the Clashindarroch Forest, near Huntly.

The group says the forest is the “last known stronghold for the iconic Scottish species”, but claims the animals are threatened from tree felling by the Scottish Government agency Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), and the construction of a wind farm.

Director Dr Paul O’Donoghue said a submission has now been made to NatureScot, formerly known as Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), “setting out their duty to notify the site for designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)”.

Wildcat Haven says it has evidence of a population of at least 13 wildcats at Clashindarroch, and official protection would make it the first and only reserve for the endangered species in Scotland.

An online petition to “save the Scottish wildcat by protecting Clashindarroch Forest” has been signed by more than 813,000 people, while a crowdfunder to fund a legal fight to stop logging in the forest has raised more than £41,000.

Dr O’Donoghue said: “The Clashindarroch is the best site in Scotland for the wildcat and the population we have found there is utterly priceless and offers great hope for the future of the species.

“The support for our plans to get SSSI status for the Clashindarroch is simply unprecedented and cannot be ignored by the government.

“The people have spoken and the message is clear. Save the wildcat in the wild where they belong.”

The Scottish wildcat, also known as “the Highland Tiger”, is the only wild member of the cat family to survive in Britain.

They have been all but wiped out due to hybridisation with feral and domestic cats, as well as historical and accidental persecution, disease and collisions with vehicles on roads.

It is estimated there may be only 35 Scottish wildcats left.

Wildcat Haven describes itself as “the only conservation group focused solely on saving the Scottish wildcat in the wild where it belongs”.

Dr O’Donoghue said that, while there are multiple sites in Scotland designated for species such as the great crested newt and capercaillie, there was not currently one for the wildcat.

He said: “The wildcat has been ignored for decades and it is now on the brink of extinction. The lack of protected habitat for them is a major contributing factor.

“There is simply nowhere safe for them to live and breed. That needs to change immediately, otherwise we will lose the wildcat forever which is simply unthinkable.”

The Aberdeenshire wildcat population includes a specimen nicknamed the “Beast of Clashindarroch”, estimated to measure more than 4ft (1.2m) from nose to the tip of its tail.

Wildcat Haven’s petition warns that “logging will tear the wildcat population apart, and threaten many other rare animals that live in the forest alongside them”.

Susan Shaw, founder of Living Law, a specialist environmental law firm working for Wildcat Haven on the Clashindarroch project, said: “This is a population find of national and indeed international importance. That is why we have made the case unequivocally that the Scottish government and its agencies have a duty to now designate this site for protection.

“If the case can be made, and we believe it overwhelmingly has been, then there is now no discretion on this matter, designation must happen.”

NatureScot yesterday confirmed it had received correspondence from Living Law, on behalf of Wildcat Haven, “making a number of claims regarding Clashindarroch forest”.

A spokesperson said: “We have not been provided with any scientific evidence to support the claims of Wildcat Haven on the numbers of wildcats at Clashindarroch or more widely.

“Extensive research in the area by our partnership has found that the number of suspected wildcats at the site is low and genetic testing suggests that the majority are likely to be hybrids.

“We are working closely with FLS, which is undertaking careful management of the site to ensure protection of any wildcats present.”