Devon wildlife park to help reintroduce wildcats to England

Two wildcat kittens lie close to their mother, one peers towards the camera curiously.

The kittens bred at Wildwood Trust are vital to the continued existence of the species in the UK - Credit: Julie Luna Bayer

Almost 200 years since they became extinct, wildlife trusts are taking the next steps to reintroduce wildcats to England's countryside. Centres in Kent and Devon will lead the breeding programmes as researchers decide which habitats will work best for the large cats

After almost two centuries, the wildcat may be returning to England. The Wildwood Trust, in collaboration with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Vincent Wildlife Trust, is looking to begin a breeding and reintroduction programme very soon. Following an announcement this week, they are looking for donations and support from the public to save the species from extinction in the UK.

The European Wildcat is the only native feline species in the United Kingdom and also our rarest mammal. Slightly bigger than a domesticated cat, they have distinctive tabby coat with black markings down the back that lead to a bushy tail with a blunt tip. Beginning in the 1700s, there was a decline in numbers across the UK. A mixture of accidental or deliberate persecution, urbanisation, hybrid breeding, and disease from domestic cats led to almost complete extinction by the 1900s and subsequent difficulty increasing population later.

The last numbers of the species now live only in remote Scotland, however their survival is still looking bleak. Recent studies suggest only around 300 wildcats are left in the wild which puts the species as 'functionally extinct' in the UK. This label means that the numbers of a species are so low that they no longer have a stable place in an ecosystem and cannot viably continue to populate. Now, wildlife trusts are determined to prevent their complete extinction from our countryside.

The breeding of wildcats is no easy task. The species are incredibly shy and as such need complete quiet and safety in order to feel comfortable rearing young. The Wildwood Trust are hoping to build a series of 10 breeding enclosures at their Kent and Devon sites, the cost of which comes to around £50,000. With the help of charitable donations, they will be able to encourage the population of wildcats for a long time to come. Speaking this week Laura Gardner, Director of Conservation at Wildwood Trust, had this to say:

“Our goal is to return a viable and self-sustaining wildcat population to its former range. As a leading British wildlife conservation charity, we have developed years of experience and expertise in breeding wildcats in support of the existing Scottish conservation project. We are now excited to be utilising these skills to benefit wildcat recovery more broadly across Britain. This will be a long term commitment for Wildwood requiring increased resources and infrastructure so we are relying on the public’s support to help.”

A head close up of a wildcat staring off into the distance. Their eyes are green and the fur is grey with dark markings.

Wildcats need plenty of space and quiet in order to breed - Credit: Julie Luna Bayer

But the reintroduction of the species is not just for aesthetic purposes, they have significant positive impacts on the ecosystem too. The European Wildcat's main prey are rabbits and other small mammals such as rodents, therefore they can help with population control of certain pests. This will also stop the overpopulating of species like foxes as they share and compete for food sources. The charities have also stressed the importance of public partnership in the project and will speak with members of the community before a reintroduction programme begins, to ensure cohesion.

Working with other organisations like the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Vincent Wildlife Trust allow the charities to pool resources and knowledge, alongside research from the University of Exeter, to guarantee the success of the project. This will be part of a wider project by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, first created by the late Gerald Durrell, author of My Family and Other Animals, to ‘Rewild our World’. The project looks to re-establish lost or damaged ecosystems and habitats, whilst also bring people closer to the natural world. 

You can learn more about the project and how to donate on their website.  

A fully grown wildcat stalks across a wooden log in its enclosure

Wildwood Trust in Kent and Wildwood Escot in Devon will be the homes of the project - Credit: Julie Luna Bayer

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