Amazing video footage has been captured of a rare Scottish wildcat kitten, bred at Chester Zoo, emerging from its den for the first time since birth.
The arrival of the kitten - the first to ever be born at the zoo – has given a big boost to a conservation programme which is working to bring Britain’s rarest mammal back from the edge of extinction.
Experts believe there could now be fewer than 100 individuals left in the wild making the Scottish wildcat, or ‘Highland tiger’ as it is affectionately known, one of the most endangered populations of cats in the world.
Wildcats once thrived in Britain but were almost hunted to extinction for their fur and to stop them preying on valuable game birds.
They are now protected under UK law but remain under huge threat from cross-breeding with feral and domestic cats, habitat loss and accidental persecution.
A co-ordinated action plan to save the highly threatened animals, named Scottish Wildcat Action, has been devised to protect the species and involves over 20 conservation partners including Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Government, The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and the Forestry Commission Scotland, as well as Chester Zoo’s Act for Wildlife conservation campaign.
Conservation breeding in zoos for their eventual release has been identified as an important component in the long term recovery plan for the animals.
Chester Zoo’s curator of mammals Tim Rowlands said: “The arrival of the new kitten is a major boost to the increasingly important captive population in Britain. It was born in May but has spent the first few months safely tucked up in its den with mum Einich and has only recently gained enough confidence to venture out and explore. It won’t be too long until this little kitten grows into a powerful predator.
“Conservation breeding in zoos is a key element in the wider plan to conserve the species in the UK and, drawing on the unique skills, knowledge and knowhow of the carnivore experts working here, we’re breeding Scottish wildcats to increase the safety net population and hope to release their offspring into the highlands of Scotland in the future.
“In tandem with our breeding programme we’re also supporting monitoring work in the Scottish highlands and have funded camera traps that are being used to identify areas where wildcat populations are thriving or suffering.
“This project is of national importance and shows what an important role zoos can play in helping to save local species. We’re very much part of efforts to maximise the chances of maintaining a wild population of the stunning Scottish wildcat for the long term.”
Chester Zoo’s three Scottish wildcats – adult female Einich, male Cromarty and the new kitten - are currently in a special behind-the-scenes breeding facility. They are not directly on show to the public but visitors to the zoo can see them via a live webcam.