MORE than 20 Scottish wildcats have been released into the Cairngorms as a years-in-the-making project reaches a landmark milestone.

The NatureScot-approved trial is the first-ever conservation translocation of wildcats in Britain.

The Saving Wildcats partnership – led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) – has so-far released 22 cats into undisclosed locations within the Cairngorms Connect landscape of the Cairngorms National Park.

The cats will be monitored using GPS-radio collars to assess their progress.

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Scotland’s wildcat population is critically endangered, and the programme will seek to reintroduce approximately 60 wildcats to the natural landscape over the next three years.

It is envisioned that approximately 20 cats will also be released in 2024 and 2025 from the conservation breeding for release centre. The cats bred for release are not available for public viewing to help them prepare for life in the wild.

The project, which has undertaken widespread engagement with local communities, has drawn on global conservation and scientific expertise to further understanding of wildcat ecology and behaviour.

David Field, chair of the Saving Wildcats project board and CEO of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, said: “We are delighted that the Saving Wildcats partnership has taken this historic step towards securing a future for the species in Scotland.

“The time is now to give the ‘Highland Tiger’ the best chance of survival and I am thankful for the work of our team members, partners and supporters in making this happen.

“I am also particularly grateful for the support of our local community in the Cairngorms as, without their engagement, we would not have reached this exciting milestone.”

Lorna Slater, Minister for Green Skills, the Circular Economy and Biodiversity, said: “The Scottish wildcat is a native species, and yet its very existence is under threat.

“This announcement is welcome news and is an important step in ensuring the survival of the species.

"Reversing the dramatic losses in nature that we have seen in recent times is one of the defining challenges that our country faces. The Scottish Government remains committed to this fight and is actively working towards protecting and restoring our natural environment and the animals that rely upon it.

“I’d like to thank everyone that has been involved for their incredible hard work that has got us to this position. I look forward to seeing the progress of the wildcats as they settle into their new home in Scotland’s iconic Cairngorms National Park.”

Thomas MacDonell, director of Conservation for Wildland Limited, on behalf of Cairngorms Connect said: “It’s fantastic that Cairngorms Connect have been selected as a suitable release site for these critically endangered cats and it is the best possible reward for the whole team at Wildland, along with the Cairngorms Connect partnership, to receive such recognition for all the hard work involved during the first twenty years we have been restoring our precious landscape.

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“The Saving Wildcats team have been a pleasure to work with and we wish the cats every success in becoming an integral part of the wild ecosystem and our futures.”

The cats were born in a purpose-built off-show conservation breeding for release centre based at Highland Wildlife Park, near Aviemore, in 2022.

Despite lengthy preparations ahead of the first release, Cairngorms Connect noted that one of the most difficult aspects of any conservation translocation is predicting how the animal will respond to being released.

Dr Helen Senn, project lead and head of science and conservation programmes for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, said: “We hope that this project will pave the way for the full recovery of Scotland’s last remaining native cat species.

“Unfortunately, life is tough for wild carnivores and the sad reality is that some of the wildcats that we release will not survive due to threats such a road traffic. Their survival is contingent on their individual behaviour in a new environment.

“While the Saving Wildcats team have made every effort to prepare the wildcats by moving them into large pre-release enclosures which support natural development, informed by other successful carnivore recovery projects such as Iberian lynx in Spain and Portugal, they cannot ultimately control how the cats will react.

“However, we also know that inaction will result in extinction. As human activity is responsible for the wildcat’s decline, we have a responsibility to take action now to protect one of our rarest and most threatened mammals.

“Everything we learn from this closely monitored first trial release will help inform future releases.”

The project is funded with the contribution of the LIFE programme of the European Union and other partners and organisations.

Further updates from the project are expected to be issued at the end of the summer release period.