Once common across the United Kingdom, the European wildcat is now found only in Scotland, where it’s on the verge of extinction. Hunters extirpated the animal from most of Wales and England by the 18th century, but wildlife advocates are looking into bringing them back to one region in England.
The Devon Wildlife Trust, a charity that manages 60 nature reserves in the county of Devon, has launched a project exploring the possibility of reintroducing wildcats to South West England. They hope to appoint a Wildcat Project Officer to lead a feasibility study. The trust says there’s evidence that there were still a few wildcats located in Exmoor until about a century ago, but they’ve since disappeared from the area.
Peter Burgess, Devon Wildlife Trust’s Director of Nature Recovery, says, “Wildcats are the UK’s rarest mammal and are on the verge of extinction in Scotland – their last refuge. They are now subject to urgent species recovery action – we want to investigate the possibility of the South West being part of this.
The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. The reintroduction of key species, such as wildcats, is part of our wider work to see wildlife and wild places restored.”
The work comes after a preliminary ecological feasibility study found that there are regions that warrant further exploration for wildcat reintroduction. The study was conducted by Vincent Wildlife Trust, another driver of wildlife conservation. The county of Devon was at the top of their list for further exploration, followed by areas surrounding it.
With their study, Devon Wildlife Trust aims to determine the suitability of certain areas across the county for wildcat habitat. They’ll be conducting scientific assessments, a social feasibility study, and engaging with the public throughout the process.
It will be some time before any action is decided upon, however.
Burgess says, “We are at the beginning of a process which will explore the return of wildcats to the South West of England. There’s a lot for us to do before this becomes a reality. Much of this will involve working with local communities to see if reintroduction is feasible. As yet, we have no scheduled date for any animals to be released.”
While hunting over recent centuries pushed the wildcat to the brink of extinction in the United Kingdom, there are other threats facing their survival in Scotland today. Among them are hybridization with domestic cats, habitat loss, and disease and competition from feral domestic cats. Predator control has also led to lower numbers across Europe.
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