Dr Terry Mabbett investigates efforts to reintroduce the European wildcat (Felis sylvestris) to England.

A quiz show contestant asked what the county of Devon is famous for might well say ‘clotted cream’, but in 10 years’ time their answer might well be ‘wildcats and clotted cream’.

This prediction follows ongoing breeding and conservation work by a Devon farmer with the ultimate aim of reintroducing the European wildcat (Felis sylvestris) to England, where it once roamed freely as a truly native and wild feline predator, until becoming extinct in the middle of the 19th century. Since then, its last toehold in the British Isles has been Scotland, where it is commonly called the ‘Scottish wildcat’. Given this close association with Scotland, most people never realised the predator was once a common feature in the woodlands of England and Wales.

The European wildcat made an early exit from southern England in the 16th century, having been hunted to extinction, but was still present in northern England during the 19th century. The last documented English sighting was in 1849, with the wildcat declared extinct during the 1860s.

The man behind current plans to re-introduce the European wildcat to England is conservationist Derek Gow. Having built up England’s first European wildcat breeding complex on his farm in west Devon, he now has six breeding pairs and welcomed litters of kittens this summer.

Derek Gow told the national press how he will need to produce some 150 adult wildcats before he can start releasing them into the wild, which he says could be as soon as 2022. You might think it would be easier to catch a few wildcats in Scotland and then release them into south-west England, but according to Gow this would be a complete waste of time for numerical and genetic reasons. According to Gow, if you want to successfully re-wild with animals like the European wildcat, you need high numbers, into the hundreds if not thousands.

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The current Scottish population is highly precarious, not only in number but also purity, with only a fraction of remaining animals meeting the morphological and genetic criteria of pure Felis sylvestris. The bulk of the Scottish wildcat population is genetically adulterated by the domestic cat, with origins in the African wildcat (Felis lybica). You only have to look at ancient Egyptian paintings to understand the origin of domestic cats. Experts say it is the inherent weakness of the Scottish wildcat population which has allowed, indeed encouraged, interbreeding with domestic cats. Presumably a strong and resilient population of pure wildcats does not need to mate with neighbourhood moggies.

Why was native wildcat so ruthlessly hunted in England in the past? Gow says it was because they are such effective predators. The European rabbit or coney (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is a key prey of wildcats, but rabbits were also an important all-year-round source of meat for English communities in the Middle Ages, as well as a source of fur. As such, wildcats were a highly effective competitor for rabbits and people worked hard to kill them. Wildcats in England were finally finished off by gamekeepers after the industrial revolution.

There is some contention over which invading culture introduced rabbits into England – the Romans or the Normans. However, it is generally accepted that rabbits did not become wild in England until the 12th century, at a time approaching the end of that period described in the history books as the English Middle Ages. It would be interesting to know what the main prey of wildcats in England was prior to this period. Brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) arrived in the early 1700s and grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) not until the 1870s, although black rats (Rattus rattus) have been in Britain since Roman times, if not earlier.

All that apart, wild rabbits are no longer needed as a source of meat and fur for people in 21st-century England. On the contrary, wild rabbits are now highly damaging pests, destroying young trees in forestry and damaging agricultural crops.

European wildcats also prey on rats and, with any luck, on grey squirrels, which means they could become much-needed natural pest-control agents. However, whether the farming community will see it that way is another matter.

So what has the response been to these plans to reintroduce the European wildcat onto the English landscape? Last year, a National Farmers’ Union spokesperson said the potential effects of reintroducing a species need to be fully understood before these animals are released.

“Any species introduction, particularly if it has been absent from this country for many decades or even centuries, can have massive impacts on the many benefits that the countryside and farming delivers. The landscape could be very different and this poses potential risks,” the spokesperson said.

A DEFRA spokesperson commented: “The movement and release of any species in England, including wildcat, should follow the International Union for Conservation of Nature guidelines.

“These guidelines ensure there are clear environmental and socioeconomic benefits to gain from releasing the animals and that their welfare is maintained.”

Reintroduction of this feline predator sounds genuinely interesting and, dare I say it, exciting, especially since a native mammalian predator is being earmarked for reintroduction into England rather than Scotland, which has had all the excitement so far. That said, attempts to reintroduce Eurasian lynx and grey wolf have not been successful so far. So let’s keep our hopes high and fingers crossed that the European wildcat will be the cat which ate the clotted cream in Devon.

Wild cats are rightly described as ‘ferocious’ and highly effective predators, but when confronted by humans they are incredibly shy and avoid all contact. However, centuries of hunting which led to their extinction might indicate that the ‘ferocious’ bit weighed more heavily on the minds of English communities throughout the ages. Breeding authentic European wildcats might well prove to be the easy part and obtaining approval for their release into the wild the very hard part, especially if recent experience with Eurasian lynx is anything to go by. Good advice might be to play down the ferociousness and emphasise shyness and avoidance of human contact.

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