Wildcats born in the Highlands have added to a record breeding year for the endangered species.
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), which runs the Highland Wildlife Park and Edinburgh Zoo, reported 57 wildcat kittens have been born within the UK conservation breeding programme this year.
In total, 22 litters of kittens were welcomed across 10 of the zoos, wildlife parks and private collections working with the wildlife conservation charity, compared to 24 kittens at 11 collections in 2019.
These include seven at the wildlife park, four born in September in the public-facing enclosures and three in the private ones. The Aigas Field Centre, near Beauly, and the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Ardgay also each welcomed three kittens.
RZSS has managed the captive population since 2015, ensuring it has the potential to support conservation efforts for the critically endangered species.
Following habitat loss, persecution and breeding with domestic cats, wildcats are on the brink of extinction in Britain and RZSS is also leading a new partnership project, Saving Wildcats, which aims to secure a future for the Highland Tiger by breeding wildcats and releasing them into the wild.
As part of the project, a dedicated conservation breeding for release centre is being built at the Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig. The centre will provide facilities for breeding, veterinary care, remote monitoring and training to prepare the cats for life in the wild, with the goal of releasing the first cats in 2022.
David Barclay, Saving Wildcats ex-situ conservation manager and coordinator of the UK conservation breeding programme, said: “Wildcats are one of Britain’s rarest and most endangered mammals which means every one of these kittens is a potential lifeline.
“Over the last few years, the members of the wildcat breeding programme have demonstrated the immense value in working together to secure a future for this iconic species.”
The record year for Highland wildcats is a welcome statistic among the country-wide result.
Mr Barclay added: “It has been a challenging year but we are really excited to be bringing together all the necessary resources and expertise to save Scotland’s wildcats, and incredibly grateful to everyone making this vital work possible.”
The Saving Wildcats partnership is led by RZSS in collaboration with NatureScot, Forestry and Land Scotland, The Cairngorms National Park Authority, Norden’s Ark and Junta de Andalucía.
The project is supported by the LIFE Programme of the European Union as well as the Garfield Weston Foundation, The National Trust for Scotland, The People’s Trust for Endangered Species and The European Nature Trust.