Wildcats will roam UK countryside as kittens born in Highlands set to be released

WILDCATS may once again roam the Scottish highlands in significant numbers as kittens bred in captivity are due to be released next year.

Once widespread, wildcats have become increasingly rare in the British countryside. Several conservation organisations aim to change that with breeding and release programs to help boost the wildcat population.

Eight kittens have been born in three litters and staff hope more will be on the way after 16 cats were paired up earlier this year as part of the Saving Wildcats campaign. The kittens were born at Royal Zoological Society of Scotland's (RZSS) Highland Wildlife Park.

The project aims to help grow Scotland's critically endangered wild cat population. The wildcats are set to be released in Cairngorms National Park in 2023 once they have grown up a bit.

David Barclay, Saving Wildcats conservation manager, said: "Put simply, these kittens are the future of wildcats in Scotland.

"Decades of extensive research have shown their species is highly likely to go extinct in Britain if we do not carry out releases to restore our critically endangered wildcat population.

"It is still early days for our new wildcat kittens who are very vulnerable in their first weeks and months.

"They have a lot to learn over the next year, but our expert Saving Wildcats keepers will be on hand to help prepare them for the many challenges of life in the wild."

Three of the kittens were born to Caol Ila, from the Saving Wildcats Centre in Edinburgh Zoo. Another three were born to Droma while two more were born to mum Torr, who was previously living at Merklands Wood.

Dr Helen Senn, head of conservation and science at RZSS, said that due to habitat loss, hunting and inter-breeding with domestic cats one of Scotland's most iconic animals was also one of its rarest. She had hope that wildcats would make a comeback.

Speaking to the Daily Record, she said: “Fortunately, our Saving Wildcats team, partners and many other wonderful supporters are working together to restore wildcats in the Highlands.

"Planning is underway for the first releases in 2023, which will be subject to receiving a translocation licence.

"This enormously collaborative effort includes our dedicated keepers caring for the cats in the centre, the field team carefully assessing the suitability of potential release sites, and national and international experts sharing best practice and their experience of breeding a whole range of species for release in conservation projects across the globe."