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Dermot O’Leary visits the Highland Wildlife Park to highlight the plight of wildcats which inspired his new book

Dermot O’Leary has already turned a cat rescue into a success story.

Now it is hoped he can help efforts to save an iconic species.

The broadcaster and author visited the Highland Wildlife Park to see the work to protect the endangered species, which inspired his latest children’s book.

‘Toto the Ninja Cat and the Legend of the Wildcat’, is an adventure story which sees Toto and friends sent to a bootcamp for naughty animals in the Highlands.

Books based on real-life cats

Dermot is best known for his presenting work – including 11 series of The X Factor, his Radio 2 Saturday breakfast show and ITV’s This Morning.

Toto the Ninja Cat and the Legend of the Wildcat is his fifth children’s book in a series, based on his real-life cats.

The idea was born when he and his wife rescued two stray cats from an olive grove in Italy, including Toto, who was blind from birth.

It is now hoped Dermot can help raise awareness of the threat facing wildcats and the work to protect them.

Dermot O’Leary with his wildcat sponsorship certificate and Saving Wildcats keepers Sarah Rainey and Estelle Morgan. Picture by Sandy McCook

Wildcats are on the brink of extinction in Britain due to habitat loss, persecution and breeding with domestic cats.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), which runs the wildlife park, leads a partnership project, Saving Wildcats, aiming to secure a future for the Highland Tiger by breeding wildcats and releasing them into the wild.

Dermot was given an update on the project by Jasper Hughes, RZSS discovery and learning officer, and the Saving Wildcats team.

He is also now a sponsor of a wildcat Fruin who, with mate Beanie, have kittens who will be the first to be released into the wild next year.

And he spread the word about the project to hundreds of children during a live event today as part of the Scottish Friendly Children’s Book Tour.

Book tour being delivered virtually

Dermot was joined on the book tour by award-winning author Cressida Cowell, the Waterstones Children’s Laureate, and creator of the How to Train Your Dragon and The Wizards of Once series.

During the pandemic, the tour has been delivered virtually throughout classrooms in Scotland.

Dermot said: “I’m blown away to be here. To come up and see the wildcats and see what the guys do here is extraordinary.

Wildcats are an endangered species. Picture by Sandy McCook

“As a cat-lover, I really appreciate the work that the Saving Wildcats partnership does.

“My cats are pretty feral, but the similarities yet how far away they are, (from the wildcats) is pretty stark.

“The breeding programme is pretty extensive and very impressive. If I can bang the drum for the team I’m more than happy to.”

He said talking to children about his book and the wildcat project raises awareness further.

“Since writing children’s fiction the thing I’ve taken away most is how engaged they are,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if they read my book or not, as long as they read.”

Dermot O’Leary spoke about his latest book at the Highland Wildlife Park

Beccy Angus, RZSS’s head of discovery and learning, said the story of wildcats in Scotland has been a heart-breaking one, until now.

She said: “Wildcats are the rarest and most threatened mammal in Britain. But, as the lead partner in Saving Wildcats, we are working hard to secure a future for the beautiful Highland Tiger.

Marc Lambert, CEO of the Scottish Book Trust, said it was fantastic Dermot was broadcasting his event live from the wildlife park.

He said:  “We’re sure the young people will be enthralled with the story of Toto the Ninja Cat and the Legend of the Wildcat and to have the opportunity to see Scottish wildcats from the comfort of their classrooms.”

In February, 16 wildcats were matched at the Saving Wildcats conservation breeding for release centre at the park.

Kittens from this season, which could be born as early as spring, will be among the first to be released in 2023.

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