What future Wildcat in Britain?
I doubt there is much knowledge in Britain about
the ecology of small, feline predators, let alone the larger feline and canine
predators. As it is, carnivore ecology is not an easy study. Taking carnivores
out of an ecosystem, or putting them back in, are logical approaches in
assessing effect, but fraught with moral dilemma over the implication of
extirpation, and conflict when reinstatement is seen as an inconvenient threat
to livelihoods or life. However, circumstances can contrive those situations
without necessarily human intention. Over the years I have pointed to the
research of John Terborgh’s group in documenting the ecological meltdown in
the vegetation of predator-bereft islands created by the flooding of a valley
in Venezuela for a hydroelectric scheme (1-3).
Jaguar, puma and ocelot, all felines, were the common predator guild of the
unflooded landscape, the howler monkeys, iguanas, porcupines and tortoises
freed from predation by those carnivores, and combined with elevated numbers
of leaf-cutter ants due to the absence of the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga
tridactyla) turning the predator-free islands into dead landscapes (4,5).
Conversely, wolves have been returning to Northern Hungary by voluntarily
dispersing across the border from Slovakia during the 1980s (6).
There’s been a continuous presence of wolves for more than 20 years in
Aggteleki National Park that abuts the border, a recent video capturing
daytime images of a wolf pack at play (7-10).
Aggteleki was for some time the only national park in Hungary where wolves
(and lynx) were constantly present and breeding, but wolves have since
dispersed 50km southward into Bükki National Park, recent video evidence
capturing a pack of wolves moving purposively in file (11).
The Park has been following the species-specific behaviours of the wolves for
a number of years using camera traps, observing territorial behaviour and
family living (12). Their prey has also regularly
been observed on the camera traps, such as wild boar, red and roe deer, but
the wolves often consume smaller mammals and rodents as well. The Park
Directorate recognised that the wild nature of the Bükk Mountains suffered
from an overpopulation of large ungulates, but which could be controlled by
large predators (13). It thus notes that the
condition of many of its plant associations, endangered and severely damaged by
the ungulate species, has improved significantly over the last few years since
wolves have been present in the mountains (12):
A changing dynamic in wolf population and territory
Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming is an example of where wolves were reinstated through human agency, but the outcome has not been without its critics who oddly claim that their reinstatement has had little impact, or at least has not resulted in the trophic cascade that could have been predicted (14,15). There is no avoiding the evidence that elk (Cervus canadensis) numbers in the Northern Range in winter have fallen. They had rebounded from a low of 4,000 up to 18,000 after culling in the Park ceased in the early 1960s due to a change of policy by the National Park Service, then fell markedly back to 4,000 after the reinstatement of wolves in 1995 (16,17). However, a most recent study on predator avoidance suggests that wolves have negligible impact on elk movements in the Northern Range, that elk may simply ignore the risk of wolf predation while navigating the landscape in search of winter forage (18,19). As with all studies in Yellowstone that swing to-and-fro, I wait to see how other researchers respond to this data, often identifying flaws in methodology or thinking (see my comment about this paper later). Thus with such predictable regularity, I find another handbagging has arrived in the literature with the highly critical response to a recent paper asserting a temporal correlation between the decrease in elk population and the recovery of aspen in the east and west sectors of the Northern Range, being contested by the subsequent response to that criticism by the authors (20-22).
I have speculated before that divergent results may arise from differences in methodology (15) but I do wonder if one immediate issue is that there doesn’t seem to be much emphasis in the literature on predation studies and vegetation response in the summer range for elk in Yellowstone - the summer range accommodates many more elk at 10,000-20,000 (16). While the Northern Range herd is the largest amongst the 6-7 different elk herds, the summer range is used by herds both from the North and by those from outside the Park to its south. I do see from the annual wolf survey reports that summer predation patterns have at least been studied by the Park Service continuously since 2003, but without assessing any impact on vegetation (16,23,24). This summer range includes the Lamar Valley where in 2008 I saw my first wolves (25). These were from the Druid Peak Pack, a pack that subsequently dissolved in 2010 after having been “ravaged by terrible pack-wide mange, beset by rivals, and dwindled by natural dispersal and deaths” the dispersals being into the Blacktail Deer Plateau Pack to the west (26). The territory of the Druids was taken over by a confederation of wolves from various packs, including some Druid descendants, which formed the Lamar Canyon Pack (26,27).
Wolf population, the membership of packs, and the distribution of pack territories in Yellowstone, is far more dynamic than I had ever considered, the total wolf population having declined considerably from its peak of 171 in 2007 to 97 in 2017, the fall attributed to decline in elk population, death by other wolves, canine distemper and sarcoptic mange (24,28,29). The total number of packs remains at 11, but there were only three breeding pairs in 2017 compared to 10 in 2007, and the identifiable packs and their territories show an ever-shifting, often overlapping mosaic (eg. compare pack territories in (24,27,29)). I suppose this changing dynamic in wolf population and territory could be a factor in these diverging observations on impact, but then I came across a more recent study that suggested a different interpretation. It was from the same group that had suggested wolves have negligible impact on elk movements (see above) their claim this time being that the cougar (Puma concolor) and not wolf, is the main predator influencing the movement of elk across the winter range of northern Yellowstone National Park (30,31). This was a revelation, as I was not aware there were cougar in Yellowstone, nor had I seen any study of trophic interaction in Yellowstone involving cougars, let alone cougar and wolf (and see Fig 2 in (32)).
Cougars in Yellowstone National Park
It was a desk study based on revisiting data about the location of 400 wolf-killed elk and 257 cougar-killed elk that had been collected in 2001-2004, as well as revisiting data from 27 radio-collared elk. The authors tested the extent that elk selected for vacant hunting domains to avoid predation from wolves and cougars, noting that wolves are cursorial predators that kill mainly in flat, open areas at morning and dusk, whereas cougars are spot-and-stalk/ambush predators that kill mainly in topographically rugged, forested areas at night (31). Their analysis, as you might expect, confirmed that the relative probability of elk predation by wolves decreased with the ruggedness of territory, whereas it increased for cougars. Conversely, the differences in relationship between relative probability of elk predation and openness for wolf and cougar were less clear – probability increased for both wolf and cougar with increasing openness, but the highest probability for wolf occurred at a higher value of openness than that for cougar. Using modelling of the elk radio-collar data, the authors concluded that elk avoided open areas during the day and forested areas during the night in a pattern that fitted avoidance of the predatory behaviour of the wolf and cougar by instead occupying the temporally vacant hunting domain i.e. when wolves and cougar were respectively at rest and not hunting.
I can’t see that their bold claim that male cougars, not wolves, exerted the most pressure on elk habitat selection has any particular worth when it is an inference from modelling data tucked away in supplementary information that is not part of the paper (33,34). The authors also skip over any explanation of why the results of this study in terms of the spatiotemporal effects of wolves are at odds with their previous study (see above). I would also point out that both studies had no aspect of directly measuring the impact on vegetation of the spatiotemporal and predation effects on elk from both wolf and cougar, but the authors claim that it negates the possibility of a trophic cascade as elk appeared to maintain regular access to risky places during daily lulls in wolf and cougar activity. That begs the question of how any of the elk were ever killed by wolves or cougar, and if there were areas where elk never visited, such as the location of wolf dens or cougar hideouts, and which thus would not turn up as data points in their modelling? Irrespective of the merits of this study, it does tend to reinforce the message of a recent paper that cautions against the tendency to simplify complex systems in studies of predation in carnivore-ungulate trophic systems (32).
As I noted above, I hadn’t come across the influence of cougar before in Yellowstone National Park, not being aware of their presence when I was there in 2008, as I wasn’t also when in the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado (15) or when I was on Vancouver Island in British Columbia in 2003, which I find has a staggering large population, but I did know when we drove down US Route 1 to Big Sur in California, also in 2003, that the Santa Lucia Mountains south of the Monterey Peninsula has the largest population of mountain lions in America (35-37). It is certainly now a recognition by Yellowstone National Park that elk are subject to multiple predators, including cougar, whose estimated population on the northern range is given across all age classes as 25–35 with others seasonally in the Park (14,16,38). Evidence came from sightings and tracks that cougar naturally re-established in Yellowstone during the early to mid-1980s having made their way over from wilderness in Idaho – and thus before the reinstatement of wolves (39). Two study periods before (1986–1994) and after the arrival of wolves (1995-2006) looked at cougar population, prey species killed, offspring production, and mortality, finding few changes in prey selection, or rates of predation on prey between the pre-wolf and during-wolf time periods, but there were changes in population from an estimated 15 to 22 cougars before wolf reinstatement to 26 to 42 after, and with the first instances of intraguild predation seen with wolves killing cougars and vice versa (39).
A more recent five-year Yellowstone Cougar Project started in 2014 as a third phase with the aim of further understanding the ecology of cougar in the Park and the dynamics of systems where several top carnivores co-exist (40,41). Puzzlingly, I can only find two annual reports - that from 2014 gives the first results of distribution studies based on snow-tracking surveys to collect DNA samples from hair, scat, or urine, as well as finding 128 instances of wolf sign (track sets, kill sites, sightings) and camera traps that produced 66 successful capture events of cougars, these preliminary findings indicating that the Northern Range still served as important habitat to a seemingly robust population of resident cougars and their offspring, an important consideration when there had been an eight-year gap since the previous study phase (42). The 2015 report found cougar use of the landscape to be similar to the previous winter, with the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River and affiliated drainages being prominent habitat use (43). Laboratory results on DNA were given for the 2014 season when 15 unique individuals were identified, including all age and sex classes (8 females, 7 males). During the 2015 season, 36% (55/153) of collected cougar samples had enough quality DNA for genotyping. Of these, 12 unique individuals were identified (6 females, 6 males), with 5 of the same cougars (1 female, 4 males) detected from both years, and a total of 22 unique individuals. In addition to cougar detection, their surveys enabled logging of other species’ occupancy and use of cougar habitat, such as 141 wolf detections, estimating their abundance and using as an index of competition and prey availability.
Feline predators in the Americas and Europe
I find that cougar - or mountain lion/puma/panther as they are also known – surprisingly has an extant range in America that is very much larger than it is for wolves, and with confirmation of sightings of cougar dispersal on a front moving east across the continent (compare (28,44)) a range expansion of a top predator being a relatively new phenomenon in North America (45,46). Perhaps it’s because of the low visibility of the cougar’s cryptic behaviour compared to that of wolves that means they are easily overlooked. It is the case that feline predators are characterised by their ability to avoid observation or detection, but some are less shy than others, as we upset the siesta of a bobcat (Lynx rufus) snoozing under a tree lupin as we walked Wilder State Park in California (35). America has three large feline predators: the cougar’s geographic range runs from Canada through western America, but with an isolated population in Florida, Central America, and down into South America (47); the bobcat that ranges from Southern Canada, through the whole of America and down into Mexico (48) and the Canada lynx (Lynx Canadensis) while it has a presence in the whole of Canada, and in Alaska, is only established in American states that are close to the border with Canada, like Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Montana, Minnesota and Washington, and with a reinstated population in Colorado (49). The Americas also have the jaguar (Panthera onca) but this is confined to discrete areas in Central American countries, as it is in the northern countries of South America (50). North America doesn’t have any of the smaller cats, like ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) jagarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi) the Margay (Leopardus wiedii) and Oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus) that have a similar distribution to jaguar; or Geoffroy's Cat (Leopardus geoffroyi) that ranges across most of the southern half of South America; or the endangered Andean Cat (Leopardus jacobita) distributed as its name implies in the central Andes above 3,600 meters (51-56).
The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx (57)) and the perilously small population of the endangered Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus (58)) are the only large feline predators in Europe, if you don’t count the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) in an area of Russia that borders Mongolia and Kazakhstan (59) or the small range of the leopard (Panthera pardus) in the far southeastern border area of Russia near Vladivostok that is shared with China (60) or endangered tiger (Panthera tigris) that ranges down from Komsomolsk-on-Amur to Vladivostok through the forests of the Sikhote-Alin mountains in that same area of Russia, and on into China (61). Europe does have two smaller cats in the wildcat (Felis sylvestris) and the genet (Viverra genetta). I perhaps shouldn’t list the genet, as its native origins as an African small cat indicate its introduction as a non-native in Spain, Portugal and France (62). The native distribution of the wildcat also encompasses Africa as it does countries stretching from France across to southwest and central Asia into India, China, and Mongolia (63). Absent only from Fennoscandia, the wildcat was very widely distributed in Europe, but severe declines and local extirpations occurred in Europe between the late 1700s and mid-1900s, resulting in a fragmented relict distribution. Its persecution in Britain has earlier origins, the nonsensical reaction to a series of bad harvests being a bounty put on the head of a wildcat, as well as other “vermin” on the official list in the Preservation of Grain Act passed in 1532 (64). The wildcat is the only surviving feline predator in Britain, the lynx having gone centuries ago, and that only in Scotland (63).
I sought to recommend something aspirational
when compiling a report in 2010 on wildland in Europe and its lessons for the
Scottish Government, alighting on the perilous assessment of the viability of
wildcat in Scotland, and where I cautioned that we faced the loss of another
autochthonous creature, but that there was a chance to pull back from the
brink with the wildcat (65). I had seen a 2008 press release from the
Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research that described
development of a model that identified potential habitats and corridors for
the European wildcat in Germany (66). A very alluring and convincing network
map of cores and corridors was shown across pretty much the
whole of Germany, based on the experimentally derived forest and forest
edge habitat selection that wildcat would choose
(67). The research formed the scientific basis for a network of forest
corridors that Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland
(BUND - Federation for Environment and Nature Conservation Germany)
intended to establish over the following years with the help of the German
states – BUND is a very large, non-governmental environmental action group in
Germany. I explained all this in the report to the Scottish Government, and
then pointed to the mapping that Scotland had for Forest Habitat Networks,
noted that ancient woodland in Scotland was mapped, and with some considerable
proportion of it in public control, and that the Native Woodland Survey of
Scotland was underway. It seemed to me that taken together, these spatial
approaches to habitat and habitat networking constituted a part of the
datasets needed for ecological networking in Scotland, and which could have
wildcat as a focus, informed by the study in Germany (65):
One of the largest Citizen Science projects in Europe
In 2011, BUND’s wildcat project was selected to be part of the Federal Biological Diversity Program in Germany, receiving funding for a six-year period by the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation of 3.85 million euros from the Federal Ministry for the Environment, but it has continued with its project success to this day, after that funding period came to an end (68-71). Headlined Wildcats Leap - Species Protection by Networking of Forests and Gene Database in the Biological Diversity Program, the project set out to connect wildcat-compatible forests with each other, often separated by roads, agricultural land or settlements, in order to promote the spread of the wildcat (see Wildkatzensprung, pg. 7 in (69)). A special feature of the project has been its approach of "Citizen Science", with over 1200 volunteers and wildcat ambassadors, making it one of the largest projects of this type in Europe. Among other things, the volunteers collected hair samples in all ten federal states where the wildcat was suspected, the hair left on posts scented with valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) an attractant that is an encouragement for the wildcats to rub up against the post (72). More than 4,700 samples have been genetically analysed to produce a nationwide gene database for wildcats, the first of its kind for a mammal in Germany. This detection method has provided information about migration and land use of the wildcat, its forest habitat selection (73) as well as identifying areas where no wildcats were detected even though suitable habitat exists, such as eastern and northern Germany, and thus where connections needed to be made. The genetic database has shown a clear genetic separation between the distribution areas in central and western Germany, an indication of barriers to interchange of the species, and which need bridging. In the Federal states particularly suitable for wildcat, volunteers have planted more than 25,000 trees and shrubs as green corridor forest connections, and carried out ecological evaluations of existing forests on the basis of such aspects as their potential for enrichment with deadwood to serve as hiding places for the wildcat, and to give birth to their young, as well as habitat for beetles and woodpeckers (74-76). In North Rhine-Westphalia, the forest areas around the Eifel National Park that are home to about 1,000 wildcat, one of the largest populations in Germany, actions were taken to optimize conditions for the wildcat by evaluating structurally rich riparian and forest edge features as routes for migration; putting in stepping stones and linear connections through planting several kilometres of roadside with shrubs and fruit trees and putting in woody islands as hiding places for the wildcat, as well as sufficient structuring as ambush hunting habitat; increasing structural-physical richness in woodlands with standing and lying dead wood; protective planting with thorn bushes around lines of tank traps and concrete bunkers as winter quarters for wildcat; and seeking agreement with the forestry authorities to restrict their activities between April and July, the rearing phase of wildcats, and removing or replacing the types of wire fencing in which wildcat can get entangled (77,78). BUND brought out a practical report in 2016 that shared its experience and knowledge of the implementation of wildcat corridors in the six major pilot projects located in the key regions of Hesse, Baden-Württemberg, Lower Saxony, Thuringia, Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia (79).
As well as the implementation of wildcat corridors, it’s been a rolling program of inventory of areas with populations of wildcat like North Rhine-Westphalia, near Bonn, or in northern and central Bavaria, other areas where there were still no wildcat such as in the Black Forest, and in eastern Germany, but also monitoring the spread of wildcat into several areas where they where previously unknown, such as in northern Saxony, Lower Saxony, Bavaria and the Saarland – there are now between 5,000 to 7,000 wildcat in Germany (80-84). The most recent sighting is 25km south of Berlin, a first presence in Brandenburg, north-eastern Germany, and symbolic in that Berlin is the capital of Germany (85). While it is in German, there is an easily explicable poster available from BUND that explains the project and how its network approach is a rescue net for the wildcat, as well as the activities that volunteers engage in (86). I like the map on the poster that shows the occurrence of wildcat in 2015. It’s more than just that, as it shows potential habitat space, suitable wildcat corridors, corridor regions and forests that have been evaluated for implementation of the network, corridor regions where there has already been work on implementation, and the locations where hair trap surveys were carried out. All this information and more is also given on an interactive map where you can toggle data layers for wildcat occurrence, the location of rub sticks, pilot green corridors (represented by a tree and a spade) forest evaluations, and potential habitats, but it is the main and minor axes of the forest network vision that I find yet again compelling (87).
The interactive map puts into perspective the ambition that the project has always had of the long-term creation of a 20,000-kilometre forest network that covers large parts of Germany, part of which BUND recognises as making an important contribution to the development of the transnational biotope network (69,85). The latter is the Green Belt (Grünen Band) that meanders as a green lifeline along a length of almost 1,400km that follows the former West/East border through Germany (the Iron Curtain) but where there are 26 gaps of more than one kilometre in length (88,89). A Federal program of closing the gaps was started in 2012, BUND being funded for five years under another project of the Federal Biological Diversity Program to target model regions in Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia, using strategic land purchase, pioneering forest creation in open landscapes, relinking other habitats, or testing other bypass solutions (Lückenschluss Grünes Band, pg. 26 in (69)(90)). In the wider scheme, BUND recognises that other animals benefit from their forest network approach to wildcat, such as badger, Bechstein's bat, fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra) dormouse, lynx, middle Spotted (Dendrocoptes medius) and Black (Dryocopus martius) woodpecker, red deer and various forest beetles (91) and makes the case that biodiversity conservation is not only about protected areas, and conservation measures for individual species, but needs an integrated network of natural habitats across Germany (92). I kind of thought this would be the immense ecological networking value of a Forest Habitat Network enhanced for wildcat in Scotland when I made my recommendation.
As BUND explains in a guide to its approach of implementing forest habitat networks for wildcat (93) it is entirely complementary with the national biotope network, a requirement in the Federal Nature Conservation Act that a network of interconnected biotopes (habitats) is to be created that should cover at least 10 per cent of the area of each of the German states (94). The biotope network is made up of protected areas such as national parks, biosphere reserves or Natura 2000 sites, but they are often spatially isolated from each other, and so they need to be connected via habitat corridors (94,95). The Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (Bundesamt für Naturschutz) describes these as the familiar elements in a networked landscape of core areas surrounded by buffers and connecting elements, such as corridors and stepping stones, with the surrounding landscape matrix encouraged to become less hostile to wildlife in recognition of the need for coexistence (96). While I did note in my report to the Scottish Government that Germany was amongst countries that specified an ecological network in its national protected area legislation (65) I missed that the following section in the legislation is explicit about these components of a networked landscape, and what measures could be used to ensure their protection in order to guarantee the permanence of the biotope network (97). This really fits with my take on the characteristics of an ecological landscape, the flux of species within a spatially heterogeneous matrix that has connectivity between core areas based on coexistence within used landscapes, a coherent approach to ecological restoration that was the foundation of the original meaning of rewilding (98).
A damning independent review of wildcat in Scotland
Four years after my recommendation in the report
to the Scottish Government, I reviewed what actions had been taken in meeting
what is in effect a legal obligation under the EU habitats Directive to ensure
a viable population of wildcat (99). I noted then
that the status of wildcat reported to the EU was “Unfavourable – Bad”
and nothing has changed by the time of the next reporting round, as it was still
“Bad” (100,101) and that’s about as much as
you can say for the prospect I felt there was that the official Scottish
Wildcat Action (SWA) project would make any difference (99).
That pessimism has been borne out by the conclusion of a recent independent
review of the conservation status of the wildcat in Scotland, and the
conservation work done, carried out by the Cat Specialist Group, IUCN Species
Survival Commission, the review commissioned last year by the Scottish Wildcat
Conservation Action Plan (SWCAP) Steering Group (102).
The range of views in the press release reflecting on the next steps indicated
in the review were jarringly upbeat (103) when this
is the devastating conclusion of the review (102):
The review authors wrote that it was crucial to ask the question of whether the general approach of the SWCAP would enable saving of the wildcat in Scotland when not only had it missed its general Goal for the first six years – to halt the decline – but that it was unrealistic that even an increase in its efforts in the future would allow the recovery of the wildcat population, the damning evidence being that the present situation of the wildcat in Scotland was worse than it was assumed to be at the start of the official project. Partly, it was the lack of chronological prioritisation of monitoring and understanding of wildcat ecology, but even more that this further action would suffer from the fact that the effect of the proposed conservation measures on the wildcat population could not be tested in Scotland because the remnant wildcat nuclei were so weak and suffered from many threats. It arose from a focus on discrete geographical areas - the Priority Areas of the SWCAP - where the continuous threats to such a small population were “too strong to allow a recovery under the present conservation paradigm”. They recommended that a “new spatial concept be developed for the restoration of the wildcat in Scotland” and not just in the obviously failing Priority Areas, and that it should be supported by a shift in focus to a captive-born conservation breeding program for reintroduction and reinforcement of wildcat populations, this breeding and release being accepted in the talking-head responses to the review (103). However, a key point in the review, and which should inform this breeding and release, is that this “new spatial concept should consider all potential wildcat habitats and should go beyond areas recolonised in the 20th century” and in particular outside of the Priority Areas, as the wildcat had “probably not survived in the “best” habitat”. I have always wondered why there was this fixation in Scotland on the sub-optimal habitats in the Priority Areas where the wildcat had retrenched, rather than where better they may exist but could not migrate to (99) and it is clear from the number of times that the reviewers encouraged various actions as well outside of the Priority Areas that they were of the same mind. In what must have been a galling reference for the official project to see, the review authors noted that the approach presented by Wildcat Haven for western Scotland seemed a reasonable spatial concept (102). I thought that myself (99) but it is highly tainted for me now by the involvement of those who screwed up lynx reinstatement in Britain (104).
There is no evidence in the review that anyone associated with the official Scottish wildcat project had sought the experience of BUND and its wildcat forest corridor project. The review authors, however, did reference a BUND publication, the one on sharing experience and best practice in implementing wildcat forest corridors (79). This was in relation to the unfulfilled actions in the SWCAP on promoting wildcat-friendly forestry practice, noting that recommendations for forest and land management to support wildcat conservation had been developed in Germany, and that an “international exchange of knowledge” would be needed in further determining the habitat requirements and use of habitats by wildcats (102). This was reiterated later in the review – “we think that a more specific exchange of information with wildcat research and conservation groups from continental European countries could help to advance the understanding of some critical factors of wildcat conservation, such as hybridisation or habitat use”. They also recommended that possible projects in Scotland should be considered in the context of other similar plans for England and Wales, citing two documents that proposed recreation of a “British wildcat metapopulation” (105,106) but cautioning that this strategic approach “may require the definition of certain common standards at a very early stage”. There’s hardly any hard facts in one of the two documents cited for this proposed recreation other than eyeing some potential regions in England and Wales for wildcat reintroduction from captive breeding (105). The other document is unpublished (106) and so all we have to go on is the précis of it given in the Scottish review that says it proposes a long-term project of 20-30 years, with a train-and-soft-release program of captive-bred wildcats over 10-20 years of 20 kittens per year done in suitable woodland sites in England, such as Kielder Forest, the Forests of Dean or Selwood, these being evaluated and prepared during the first 3-5 years of the project (102). There is an acknowledgement in the précis that where large, healthy populations of wildcats live in suitable habitat in continental Europe, hybridisation with domestic cats is relatively low – it doesn’t seem to be an issue for BUND in Germany – but it is obvous that hybridisation bedevils the Scottish wildcat in its current retrenched location and has created the dead end that it’s found itself in. It thus seems to me to that the risk of hybridisation has set the tone in the development of any new plans for wildcat reintroduction, as it does for this unpublished plan, rather than what is the bigger issue of sub-optimal habitat.
A mechanistic approach to conservation issues
This unpublished plan précised in the review is obviously the one that has been trailed in the media, and which gave publicity to Derek Gow, a Devon farmer who was one of the unpublished plans authors. Gow has long had a list of side-lines: breeding or lodging animals for release, such as water voles and beaver; importing 13 Heck cattle, breeding them for “study and as subjects for photography” before having to kill off the ones too dangerous to handle (107) and who is now setting up to breed wildcat on his farm having got two cats from a zoo in February this year, the aim being to breed 150 wildcat kittens every year and release them in promising habitat in Wales, Devon and Cornwall (108-111). One of the accounts of this reports that a feasibility study by the Vincent Wildlife Trust has identified rural Devon and Cornwall and mid-Wales as having the best habitats for the wildcat (111) and it is the case that the unpublished plan identified that the management of the reintroduction project would be controlled by key partners including the Vincent Wildlife Trust and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. However, while the Vincent Wildlife Trust has a news release of a partnership with the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust to restore wildcat to Britain, and have undertaken a preliminary scientific feasibility study to identify potential landscapes for reintroduction, there is no mention of Derek Gow (112). Moreover, when asked whether he would be working with any of the Scottish partners, or the Studbook Keeper for wildcat that keeps track of all captive-bred wildcat (Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (113)) or was he going it alone, Gow did not respond (114). He is, anyway, a bit of a laggard in terms of captive breeding of wildcat, since two more female kittens were born recently at the Aigas Field Centre near Beauly in the Scottish Highlands, and four more at the Wildwood Trust in Kent, both established breeding centres (115,116).
I have an antipathy towards Gow, and wouldn’t
want him to get anywhere near taking any responsibility for a national
strategy of reinstatement of wildcat, especially as he seems to think it would
be unregulated, that no licence for release is required, and which he may take
to mean that he has free rein (106). That antipathy comes from his mechanistic
approach to conservation issues. Known as the expert on beaver
reinstatement, he trades in beaver (117) recently
flogging two beaver to Archie Ruggles-Brise, who stuck them in a 4ha fenced
enclosure on his Spains Hall Estate near Finchingfield, Essex, in so doing receiving a blaze of publicity for the
return of beavers to Essex for the first time in 400 years, and lauded as
an example of natural flood management
that would be compared with the outcome of recently installed leaky dams on
another watercourse on the estate (118-123).
I have written very recently of this nonsense of vanity projects involving
fenced beaver and token leaky dams (124). Always a
groupie for Frans Vera and the Oostvaardersplassen – which explains the Heck
cattle (125) - Gow is also an admirer of Knepp,
expressing the view that “cattle and ponies and pigs are principal drivers"
of rewilding (126) and has belatedly got
around to aping Knepp by pulling out internal fences on his farm (127)
to enlarge a field that he calls a “rewilding area” and where he has
dumped Heck cattle, pigs and Exmoor ponies (128).
Gow is thinking of getting hold of some American bison to put in there as well
(129). Even Monbiot has cottoned on to this sham of
rewilding. Writing about the impact that farming has, Monbiot noted it was
mistake to imagine that extensive farming is better for the planet than
intensive farming, even though the latter tended to cause massive
environmental damage through pollution, soil erosion and the elimination of
wildlife, because extensive farming was worse, as it required more land to
produce the same amount of food, land that could otherwise be devoted to
ecosystems and wildlife (130):
Ich habe es dir gesagt!
The impact that wildcat would have in an ecosystem is relatively less than the system-directing impact of a large carnivore, like the cougar in North America, or the wolf both there and in Europe. However, if you think of the persecution that foxes and wildcat suffer in Britain, allegedly accidental in the case of wildcat through mistakenly being identified as feral cats and shot by gamekeepers (see the review (102)) then you do get a measure of their inconvenient impact, and which is the cause of their persecution, but it is also an indication of the ecological significance that a mid-level predator represents in the trophic ecology of Britain. In a very recent book on coexistence and human-wildlife interactions in Europe, a chapter by Linnell and Kaltenborn from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research notes that decision-making for large carnivores, often regulated by external authority, is usually made at high level (131). They observe that the literature is full of examples of localised projects, but that to achieve large-scale coexistence there is a need to scale up these interventions to cover entire areas of regions, countries or continents where species occur. I would say that this is also the case for wildcat, irrespective of it being a mesopredator, and when I commended the BUND project on wildcat nine years ago to the Scottish Government, I did it for the serious reason that I thought that if it was adopted, giving purpose to the Forest Habitat Network in Scotland by colonising it with wildcat, then it would have prevented the situation we have now. If we are serious about a national presence of wildcat, then piecemeal projects by small organisations – or animal traders - unguided by a national strategy with common standards, will continue to fail.
Mark Fisher 21 August 2019, 23 January 2021
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