Wildcats will be reintroduced to English woodlands

The European wildcat could be reintroduced into the wild in the UK outside of Scotland for the first time in over two centuries thanks to the work of conservation groups.

The wildcat is Britain's rarest mammal and is functionally extinct, with less than 300 thought to be remaining exclusively in the Scottish Highlands.

But wildlife charity Wildwood Trust have announced that it is hoping to save the species from total extinction by heralding a 'new dawn' for the country's last remaining native cat species.

Director of conservation Laura Gardner said: '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.'

Wildwood Trust, partnered with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Vincent Wildlife Trust, hope to build 10 new wildcat breeding facilities across its two sites in Herne Bay, Kent and Escot, Devon.

Breeding is notoriously difficult as any noise or disturbance can stress the kittens out so their temporary homes will be out-of-sight.

Each enclosure will hold a breeding pair of cats - who usually mate between January and March - before their litters of one to eight kittens born in April or May are later released into the wild.

It is hoped the project, which could run between 10 and 20 years, will see new kittens allowed to roam the British wilderness every year.

Experts from the University of Exeter are currently researching suitable locations for reintroduction.

The wildcat was hunted and persecuted to extinction in England and Wales more than a century ago when all predators were considered vermin.

It has not been able to return since due to loss and fragmentation of habitat and more recently interbreeding with domestic and feral cats.

Scotland's last wildcat group is no longer deemed a viable population. But it is hoped restoring a healthy number of one of the few native predators could restore balance in the ecosystem.

They perform important functions like controlling prey such as rabbits and rodents while giving other hunters competition for food.