UK

British Big Cats: Scottish Wildcat 'Could Be Made Extinct At Any Moment'

14/09/2012 16:51 BST | Updated 14/09/2012 17:17 BST

The rare Scottish wildcat could become extinct 'at any moment', conservationists have warned.

There could be as few as 35 purebreds left in the wild, according to information gathered by the Scottish Wildcat Association (SWA).

Numbers of the feline known as the 'Highland Tiger' have dwindled in as the creatures cross-breed with domestic or feral cats.

The Scottish wildcat is the only native member of the cat family to be found in the wild in Britain, according to Scottish Natural Heritage.

scottish wildcats

The biggest ever wildcat measured 1.2m or four feet long..

"There may be as few as 35 but that number could be higher or lower - the problem is we're not sure," SWA chairman Steve Piper said.

"They could be extinct within months if the numbers are below 100. They could effectively become extinct at any moment."

In recent years research has suggested about 400 purebreds remain.

scottish wildcat

Wildcats have distinctive markings and pale green eyes. Their faces are much more oblong than ordinary cats

The SWA collated information from its own research and from the Cairngorms Wildcat Project and Oxford University.

The association looked at records of camera trap sightings, eyewitness reports and road kills.

Mr Piper said genetic testing was needed to establish the population accurately.

He added: "We get people saying 'I used to see them all the time five to ten years ago'.

wildcat

Blending in with the heather: Scottish wildcats used to number around 400: now their numbers could be as little as 35

"It seems that we may have crossed a threshold over the last five to ten years.

"What we can't do is have another three years of camera traps. We need the kind of survey backed up by genetic testing."

A spokesman for Scottish Natural Heritage said: "We need to be careful about drawing conclusions from estimates of population size and different types of information.

"The limited survey information available on this cryptic species provides an uncertain basis from which to state precisely how many animals may be living in the wild.

scottish wildcat

Scottish Wildcats are known as 'the Highland Tiger': Victorian gravestones dedicated to young children believed to have been killed by wildcats can be seen in Scotland

"The Scottish wildcat continues to be a priority species for us.

"All those interested in the conservation of wildcats need to work together to make a real positive difference for the species.

"That's what the new wildcat action plan will be all about. We need a coordinated plan."