A year ago, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published a report about the Scottish wildcat.
It said: “We consider the wildcat population in Scotland to be no longer viable. The number of wildcats is too small, the hybridisation too far advanced and the population too fragmented.
“We therefore conclude it is too late to conserve the wildcat in Scotland as a stand-alone population.”
Estimates of the remaining population vary from 30 to 430, a wide enough discrepancy to confirm what many of us have known for a long time – nobody has a clue what the numbers are, only that there are not enough.
If you watched the Europe episode of the BBC’s Seven Worlds, One Planet series, you would have seen a cameo about the Iberian lynx. You would have heard that its population had been reduced to fewer than 100. You would also have heard that in a radically-structured attempt to save it from extinction, a national park was created for them in the wooded mountains of southern Spain, an area no more than 25 miles across.
Because of this, there are now more than 700 Iberian lynxes with 200 kittens born in 2019 alone.
So bringing a wilderness cat species back from extinction can be done.
I mention the Iberian lynx project because elements within the conservation movement in Scotland are making the argument for lynx reintroduction, an argument that strikes me as being wrong-headed. It seems to have occurred to no one that a new healthy lynx population could be the final straw for a failing wildcat population.
At the end of last autumn, £3.2 million of European Union funding was announced for the Scottish Wildcat Action Plan, by which up to 60 wildcats bred in captivity would be bolstered by wildcats brought in from Europe and reared here alongside them.
Scottish Wildlife Action is a partnership of 20 organisations, some of which make very strange bedfellows indeed. When a conservation project is based on the representatives of 20 different organisations, it is simply impossible to reconcile all the interests. The only thing that suffers is the wellbeing of wildcats.
Consider again Spain’s approach to the Iberian lynx. Declare a piece of land a national park and make the lynx its top priority. As things stand, we cannot do that in Scotland because unlike almost every other country in western Europe our national parks are not owned by the nation. The land within them is an often uneasy and reluctant coalition of private landowners, conservation charities and the Forestry Commission. We could, of course, change the law in Scotland so that national parks are owned by the nation.
Take a look at the list of problems confronting the wildcat and spot the common link. They are identified by the IUCN report as hybridisation with feral domestic cats, prey fluctuation, predator control, accidental killing by dogs, snares and poisoned bait, road accidents and habitat loss. The common link is that every problem it faces is directly attributable to human activity. If we lose the wildcat, we killed it.
The wildcat action plan identifies five priority areas – the Angus Glens, Strathbogie in Aberdeenshire, North Strathspey, Strathpeffer and Morvern. If you carry a map of Scotland in your head, you will know that these are small and widely scattered, and “small and widely scattered” is not an ideal basis on which to form a strategy for saving a species.
A study of these areas between 2015 and 2018 revealed that the cat population was 20% wildcats and 80% hybrids or domestic cats. The IUCN used the chilling phrase “a hybrid swarm”. It is at this point in the argument that the IUCN report stopped talking about “the Scottish wildcat” and started talking about “the wildcat in Scotland”. The Scottish wildcat as a distinct sub-species is gone. And the sooner we stop using unhelpful tourist board nonsense like “the Caledonian tiger” as if our wildcat was a distinctive brand, the better.
It is symptomatic of a conservation project that was on a shaky footing from the outset, when the then environment minister, Paul Wheelhouse, announced in 2013 that “we have given ourselves six years to halt the decline”.
The six years ended a couple of months ago, and the decline only steepens.
The IUCN’s advice was unambiguous. “The recovery of the wildcat in Scotland will only be possible with the support of reintroduction and reinforcement projects, and that ‘pure Scottish wildcats’ should be combined with wildcats from continental Europe…”
I have argued for a dedicated wilderness national park centred on Rannoch, extending west across the Black Mount Hills, Glen Orchy and Inishail and as far as the north shore of Loch Awe and the east shore of Loch Etive. It is there that we should reintroduce wolves on the basis that wolf reintroduction is the single most life-enhancing thing that we can do for the wellbeing of nature.
Might that same wilderness national park be the place to reintroduce wildcats?
Scotland has never dared to think this big and this bold of its nature conservation initiatives.
As with climate change, with our zero carbon emissions plan, there is huge merit in small countries setting an example to the rest the world. Here is a project that would address a number of fundamentals:
- A re-evaluation of how we treat, manage and own land in Scotland.
- An acknowledgment our national parks are hopelessly skewed towards some of the most destructive traits of tourism.
- A determination to tackle the most difficult and potentially divisive aspects of conservation by showing a willingness to take a decisive stand on nature’s behalf.
- It gives the project to save the wildcat in Scotland a much greater chance of success.
- The wolf should be in Scotland – there is no realistic argument against it – and it is at home now in every mainland European country. There are huge benefits for nature and biodiversity recovery, as proven in the 25 years since the wolf’s return to Yellowstone National Park.
Scotland has huge potential to be a showcase for thoughtful nature conservation in a 21st-Century nation. How fitting if the nadir in the fortunes of the wildcat proved to be the moment that caused us to re-examine everything, and beyond which we embarked on a series of grand gestures that rebuilt our relationship with nature.
Robert Burns apologised to nature on behalf of humankind for screwing up the planet in a single remarkable verse:
I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken nature’s social union
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion
And fellow mortal!
But that was 215 years ago. It is time we stopped apologising and begin to repair nature’s social union.
Into the Wild: jimcrumleynature.com