Wildcat breeding programme in England begins

Wildcats could be reintroduced to the South West within the next three years, according to the head of a Devon reintroduction project.

Farmer and mammal reintroduction specialist Derek Gow announced this week that he was rearing a captive population of European wild cats, previously held by The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.

The last wildcat is believed to have been wiped out in England 150 years ago, although it has not been seen in the south of England since the 1500s. According to a feasibility study of the species carried out by the Vincent Wildlife Trust, rural Devon, Cornwall and mid-Wales would provide the best habitats for the future of the wildcat.

For the past month, Gow has been rearing three male and one female European wild cats. Gow said the litter will need two to three years of domestic rearing before they can be reintroduced into the wild – they are currently five weeks old. 

Gow, who has worked on water vole and beaver reintroduction projects, hopes to establish a wildcat programme big enough to support 150 wildcat kittens, every year.

European wildcat numbers are growing in some places such as Bavaria, Germany, which is now home to hundreds of wildcats, following a successful reintroduction and breeding programme.

Advocates for the reintroduction of the wildcat point to their ability to predate pests such as rabbits and grey squirrels, although the National Farmers Union has warned that the potential effects of such species reintroductions need to be better understood.

DEFRA is currently developing a code of best practice for reintroduction projects but has said that any species released, including wildcats, should follow the International Union for Conservation of Nature guidelines. 

Because the wildcat is still found in the wild in Scotland, they can be released in England without a permit from Natural England. 

A spokeswoman for Natural England added that any wildcat release should "comply fully with relevant welfare regulations".

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