They are known as the 'Highland tiger' but Scotland's wildcat numbers are too low to be sustainable in the short and long term. 

It is hoped that fresh research from NatureScot will help shape the action needed to protect the critically endangered animal. 

The actions proposed would work in tandem with releases of Scottish wildcats into the wild - with the first-ever release led by the Saving Wildcats partnership due to occur later this year.

However, to ensure these young wildcats which were born in captivity can help boost population numbers, conservationists must fight the threat of hybridisation among other key issues. 

Improving the quality of their habitats and reducing deaths from disease, persecution and road traffic accidents are also crucial actions. 

READ MORE: 'Critical' milestone hit in bid to save endangered Scottish wildcats

The nine technical reports and a summary report reflect the work carried out by Scottish Wildcat Action between 2015 and 2020 with the help of the National Lottery Heritage Fund's finances. 

Biodiversity minister Lorna Slater said the research will be "critical" in informing decisions that are hoped to revive the population. 

“The Scottish wildcat is an iconic and much loved native species, and yet its very existence is under threat," she said.

"Reversing the dramatic losses in nature that we have seen in recent times is one of the defining challenges that our country faces.

"The Scottish Government remains committed to this fight and is actively working towards protecting and restoring our natural environment.”

Over the five-year lifespan, the multi-parter project worked with over 140 volunteers to neuter and vaccinate 205 feral domestic and obvious hybrid cats.

Hybridisation, or breeding with other cat species, is considered to be one of the most serious threats to the mammal.

The action also tracked wild-living cats with over one million images helping to identify 356 cats in six priority areas. 

In addition to exhaustive camera trap surveys in the six priority areas, project partners conducted camera-trap surveys at 268 camera locations in over 30 sites stretching from Torridon to the Trossachs.

The Herald:

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

However, despite running genetic tests on 529 cat samples, none of the samples from wild-living cats scored highly enough to be considered wildcats.

The five-year project also saw morphology tests on 118 dead cats, over half of which were killed on roads, but none proved to be 'Highland tigers'.

Dr Roo Campbell, NatureScot’s Mammal Adviser and report author, said the information collated as part of Scottish Wildcat Action has been used to inform the next phase of conservation led by Saving Wildcats.

“The Saving Wildcats project represents a vital phase in restoring the wildcat in Scotland, but this is not the final step on the journey, we’re still at the beginning" Dr Campbell said.

“To succeed, wildcat conservation in Scotland next needs a nationwide effort with long-term commitments from all stakeholders over the coming decades. Improvements to habitats and reduction in risks, such as those from land management practices, will help ensure future wildcat populations remain viable.

"But a key part of this will also be removing the threat of hybridisation. This includes continuing efforts to neuter pet domestic cats, feral domestic cats and obvious hybrids."

The mammal adviser emphasised that legislation which would ensure pets are microchipped and neutered would "significantly reduce this threat".

The Scottish Wildcat Action also tracked 14 hybrids with GPS collars to identify the threats to the species.

He added: “The ultimate goal must be to establish a population of wildcats that does not need further human intervention to secure its survival.

"We’re hopeful that we can achieve this by working together now to protect and restore this iconic species for generations to come.”

The next phase in efforts to protect the future of the Scottish Wildcat is being led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) in collaboration with NatureScot, Forestry and Land Scotland, Cairngorms National Park Authority, Nordens Ark and Junta de Andalucía.

We previously reported that the Saving Wildcats partnership reached a "milestone" moment as young wildcats were moved into pre-release enclosures.

Saving Wildcats project lead Dr Helen Senn said: “These reports show that wildcats are truly on the brink of extinction in Britain, and that a significant amount of work still needs to be done to secure a future for the Scottish wildcat population.

“Saving Wildcats is evidence based, building on the research that was undertaken by Scottish Wildcat Action and follows recommendations to restore wildcats in Scotland through breeding them for release.

“The partnership is working extensively with a wide variety of national and international experts to carry out trial releases of wildcats and we welcome further action nationwide from stakeholders to save the wildcat population throughout Scotland.”