A bid to boost a Scottish species on the brink of extinction has moved a step closer to the first-ever release of the animal into the wild. 

Scottish wildcats which are set to be released in the Cairngorms National Park later this year have now been moved into specially designed pre-release enclosures.

The Saving Wildcats conservation partnership project has said the move marks a "critical milestone" in the efforts to help the endangered mammals.

Once widely distributed across Great Britain, wildcats have suffered from loss of habitat and persecution - with only low numbers remaining in northern and eastern Scotland

Led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), the partnership is working to restore Scotland’s wildcat population through a breed and release programme. 

READ MORE:Wildcats to be released in Scotland this summer in bid to save iconic species

David Barclay, ex-situ conservation manager for the partnership, said: "It is fantastic to have passed this critical milestone in the project and exciting to take another important step forward in the plans to release wildcats this year.

"The journey to restore a viable wildcat population in Scotland is just beginning and we are incredibly grateful for the efforts of our team members, partners and supporters whose expertise has been crucial to reach this point."

The Herald:

A total of 22 kittens were welcomed at the Highland Wildlife Park in a quiet area hidden away from visitors last year - many of which will be among the first of their species to release into the wild in the UK.

Their pre-release enclosure is also located in the eight-acre conservation breeding for release centre at the park. 

There are 20 enclosures which were constructed in 2022 as a core element of the programme.

In efforts to support natural development, the enclosures are designed to reduce exposure to humans and disturbance and are not available for public viewing. 

Wildcats are solitary in the wild and the pre-release enclosures mimic a natural dispersal from their parents.

Mr Barclay added: “The large pre-release enclosures are designed to encourage the cats to exhibit their full repertoire of natural behaviours whilst promoting social interactions and communication between cats.

"Our expert keeper team also use a selection of tools and techniques to promote natural activity patterns whilst enhancing key skills needed for life in the wild, including hunting, foraging and scent marking.

"To compliment this, we have an extensive CCTV system which allows us to monitor the behaviour of the cats around the clock from our office, without any activity at the enclosures.”

The pre-release enclosures were built with the support of Cairngorms National Park volunteer programme, Chester Zoo, Forestry and Land Scotland as well as experts and advisors from St Andrews University.

READ MORE:Bid to save the endangered Scottish wildcat is resuscitated

Meanwhile, the wildcats which remain in the breeding enclosure are also expecting a busy time ahead.

Coupled-up wildcats have begun their second breeding season, which includes pairs Fruin and Beanie, Fian and Rannoch, Cranachan and Margaret, Torr and Embo, Droma and Arran, Oscar and Caol Ila and Nell and Con.

However, male wildcat Ordie is awaiting the arrival of another female wildcat after his partner Tulla sadly died after complications from a fractured leg.

Rannoch was also re-paired after his last partner Fearn was moved to Golders Hill Park Zoo in London.

Also known as the Highland Tiger, wildcats are elusive and secretive animals which feed on small mammals and birds.  

The Herald:

The project’s wildcat conservation breeding for release centre is the first of its kind in the UK and follows other similar dedicated endangered species breeding centres including Iberian lynx and European mink.

The project is funded with the contribution of the LIFE Programme of the European Union and the generous support of the Garfield Weston Foundation, the National Trust for Scotland, the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, the European Nature Trust and the Scottish Government.

However, the Saving Wildcats project also relies on donations from supporters. 

Running up to April 27, donations will go even further through the Give Green Match Fund with all donations being doubled.