Work to save the Scottish wildcat from extinction has taken another major step forwards after the first cat was introduced to a breeding-for-release centre at the Highland Wildlife Park.
Nell, a young female which arrived from the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Ardgay, is the first of 16 cats coming to the centre in Kincraig which provides breeding space, veterinary care, remote monitoring and training to prepare cats for life in the wild.
It is hoped that any kittens Nell rears will be among the first animals released into the Highlands next year as part of the Saving Wildcats project to restore the iconic and critically endangered species in Scotland.
The project is led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), which runs the wildlife park and Edinburgh Zoo, in collaboration with NatureScot, Forestry and Land Scotland, the Cairngorms National Park Authority, Norden’s Ark in Sweden and Junta de Andalucía, the regional government of Andalusia.
David Barclay, Saving Wildcats ex-situ conservation manager, said: “Nell is the first cat to be introduced into our breeding for release centre at Highland Wildlife Park and she has settled well into her new surroundings.
“A further 15 cats will be arriving at the centre in the coming weeks, giving us a healthy, genetically diverse population to breed from. Offspring will then be transferred to larger pre-release enclosures as they mature where they will undergo a dedicated training programme to prepare them for life in the wild.
“We hope the first cats will be ready to be introduced into a site in the Scottish Highlands in 2022.”
Saving Wildcats is funded with the contribution of the EU LIFE Programme and support from the Garfield Weston Foundation, The National Trust for Scotland, The People’s Trust for Endangered Species and The European Nature Trust.
RZSS has managed a captive wildcat population since 2015, ensuring it has the potential to support conservation efforts for the species.
Following habitat loss, persecution and breeding with domestic cats, wildcats are on the brink of extinction in Britain.
In September four wildcat kittens made their public debut at the Highland Wildlife Park after being born during lockdown in another boost for the conservation project.