A new research project in the Highlands has provided a rare insight into the secret world of one of Britain’s most endangered and elusive species.

Most People think that the Highlnad Tiger is Sean Connery - For good reason - Sightings of him are much more frequent

Most People think that the Highland Tiger is Sean Connery - For good reason - Sightings of him are much more frequent

Scottish wildcats are the only surviving member of the cat family native to Britain. They look like an oversized muscular tabby but with a thick blunt tail and serious attitude!

The Scottish wildcat has become extremely rare. It’s much rarer than the Bengal tiger. In fact, experts believe there could be as few as 400 left in the wild. Yes, just 400! This makes the wildcat one of Britain’s most endangered species.

Scottish wildcats are notoriously secretive, but conservationists are hoping to gain a more detailed understanding of their behavior.

They have attached specialist camera equipment, known as photo-traps, to trees in the Cairngorms National Park.

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The cameras have already provided images of wildcats and other animals.

The project is still in its early stages but the cameras have already provided images of Scottish wildcat – popularly known as the Highland tiger – and other animals, including golden eagles.Other animals, including this golden eagle, have also been photographed

‘Major threat’

The research is being led by Dr David Hetherington of the Cairngorms National Park Authority.

He told BBC Scotland: “Wildcats are very shy, secretive animals. They are active mainly at night and it’s really difficult for people to get close enough to watch them properly.

“These camera traps are an excellent way of us getting a much better insight into where wildcats live, when they’re active, and what habitat they’re using.

“We can also get an idea of where they don’t live and, of course, that’s also really important information.”

Experts believe the Scottish wildcat population has fallen to about 400, and work is under way to prevent the species becoming extinct.

That involves encouraging cat owners in the Highlands to ensure their animals are neutered.

Dr Hetherington explained: “The major threat to wildcats these days is hybridization, or inter-breeding, with domestic cats.

Wolf-Poodle

“Although they are quite different and have a completely different temperament, they are actually quite closely related genetically to domestic cats so they can produce fertile hybrids.  “If that continues we are going to lose our pure Scottish wildcat.”

Wildcats can mate with domestic cats creating fertile “hybrid” offspring, and this is currently the greatest threat to their future. It’s a bit like a poodle getting together with a wolf – bad news!

So, If you’re a cat owner living in the Scottish Highlands, chances are you’re within the range of a randy Scottish wildcat, so please do consider having your cat neutered. RESPONSIBLE CAT OWNERSHIP ( download PDF )

You can also report wildcat sightings within the Cairngorms National Park, and help fund wildcat research, education and a captive breeding program. Click HERE to find out how!

Conservationists believe the work could help prevent another iconic species joining a long list of large predators which have been wiped out in Scotland over the last few centuries.

Douglas Richardson, of the Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig near Aviemore, said: “We are dealing with an animal that’s the last of its kind in the British Isles. We formerly had lynx and other big, dangerous and interesting animals. But this is our last feline predator and I think we are duty bound to protect it.”

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