The decision by national agency NatureScot, in favour of the Saving Wildcats partnership, marks the first in a series of trial releases being planned to help restore Scotland’s critically endangered wildcat population.
Led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), the application from Saving Wildcats was submitted last September and assessed by NatureScot in line with the Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations.
The process considers a range of issues including animal welfare, site suitability and potential impacts on neighbouring and community interests.
The proposed release site, Cairngorms Connect, has been deemed suitable for the wildcats’ relocaion from the project’s conservation breeding for release centre at RZSS’s Highland Wildlife Park.
Releasing wildcats in the vast landscape of Cairngorms Connect - the UK’s largest habitat restoration project - will be an important first step in helping to re-establish the species in Scotland while achieving a range of benefits for people and nature in the Cairngorms National Park.
There are, however, risks and challenges associated with the translocation of a predator species to the area, and success will rely on support from local communities.
Dr Katherine Leys, NatureScot’s head of biodiversity, said: “This journey is not without difficulty, and we know that there are more hurdles to overcome before we reach the point where we are ready to release the wildcats into carefully selected areas of the Cairngorms National Park.
“Once there, the wildcats will face further challenges, so it’s crucial the project continues to work with local communities, farmers, land-owners and cat owners to ensure wildcats are given the best chance to survive and thrive. We are incredibly proud to be part of the Saving Wildcats project, as we take another step towards restoring the ‘Highland Tiger’ to Scotland’s landscapes for future generations to cherish.”
Dr Helen Senn, Saving Wildcats project lead and RZSS Head of Conservation said: “It is fantastic to reach this milestone and press ahead with planning for trial wildcat releases in the Cairngorms over the summer.
“When the time comes, we will be able to move wildcats under license from pre-release enclosures at Highland Wildlife Park to carefully selected areas in the Cairngorms Connect landscape which provide a suitable mix of habitats and potential prey for the species.
“After release, the wildcats will be monitored using GPS collars as they face the many challenges of life in the wild.
“The fight to restore Scotland’s wildcat populations is just beginning and we are grateful to everyone providing expertise and support along the way.”
Thomas MacDonell, Wildland Limited’s Director of Conservation, and member of the Cairngorms Connect Board added: “The four Cairngorms Connect land-managing partners – Wildland Limited, Forestry and Land Scotland, NatureScot, and RSPB Scotland – work collaboratively to deliver landscape-scale restoration across 600 sq. km within the Cairngorms National Park, making it the perfect release location. We’re delighted to be a part of restoring this iconic Scottish species.”