A breeding centre designed to save Scotland’s wildcats from extinction could open as early as next year, it has been revealed.
The National Wildlife Reintroductions Centre is planned for land near the Highland Wildlife Park near Aviemore.
Before it can be built however, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) must secure funding – and are expecting to find out soon if their applications have been successful.
Plans include a breeding facility with wildcat experts and a dedicated veterinary unit to bolster the so-called “Highland tiger”.
Wildcats would go through a rigorous training regime before being released into the Scottish Highlands.
The move comes after research found that there is no longer a viable wildcat population living naturally in Scotland.
David Barclay, RZSS cat conservation project officer, said that if funding applications are successful, the grants will provide a significant part of the overall cost of a project.
He said: “Wildcat populations in Scotland are far worse than what we thought five years ago. No matter what we do in the wild, if we don’t put more out there then extinction will be almost inevitable.
“What we are aiming to do is to secure funding so that we can build this dedicated facility, that we can quarantine, breed and train animals prior to release.
“If that funding is successful then in the next few months we would get the ball rolling with the development of the facility and also the groundwork for the reintroduction project.
“The plan that we are working on would aim to release 20 animals per year annually over a number of years, but a facility like this is critical.
“It may come in stages as it’s a big project, but all going well we would aim to have animals in the breeding facility of the centre by December 2020.”
Hybridisation with feral and domestic cats is thought to pose the greatest threat to wildcats. Other threats include historical and accidental persecution, disease and collisions with vehicles on roads.
RZSS already runs a conservation breeding programme for wildcats at its Highland Wildlife Park attraction, producing a record seven kittens this season.
Mr Barclay added: “We are very close to losing the wildcat as one of the most iconic species in Scotland, but we’ve not lost it yet and I think that’s really important.
“Breeding programmes can’t succeed from one institution alone and it’s always a collaborative and team approach. If you have everybody working together, following the recommendations, breeding and managing the animals that are recommended to breed then that’s when you get success.
“What we are trying to do, if we are able to deliver the plan that we are working on, is to create a viable population; one that has got enough genetic diversity, enough animals and enough habitat to become self-sustaining over time. That’s what Scotland doesn’t have just now and that would be an incredible success for the species.”