A bit of good news from up North, after the pregnancy saga of Edinburgh Zoo's guest VIP (Very Important Panda) Tian Tian ended in disappointment last week.
Back in August, two rare Scottish wildcat kittens were born at the Highland Wildlife Park and they have just started to explore outside their den, providing the media with a welcome photo op earlier today.
The two female kittens have been named Ness and Einich, in keeping with the Park’s tradition to name wildcats after lochs. The pair were born late in the season to mum Betidh after she was introduced to Hamish, the Park’s resident mature male wildcat.
The Park hopes the two "Highland Tigers" as they sometimes called, will play a role in its breeding programme, as part of the new Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan, unveiled on 24th September.
Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections at the Highland Wildlife Park and steering group member of the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Group says, “The appearance of these wildcat kittens is the latest such event in the Wildlife Park’s long history of breeding the species. But with the Wildcat Action Plan, the contribution that these little chaps may make in the future to their species’ survival will hopefully be more impactful. The plan is for a much more aggressively managed breeding programme, running alongside a wide range of other wildcat conservation initiatives that will eventually turn the tide for the species in Scotland.”
The size of the remaining population of Scottish wildcats is a topic of current debate, with no reliable population estimates, however experts agree that the wildcat is one of the UK’s most endangered mammals. Their biggest threat lies in hybridisation with feral populations of domestic cats.
The only wild member of the cat family to survive in Britain, the elusive nature of Scottish wildcats makes them extremely difficult to spot in the wild and it can be difficult to visually differentiate a true wildcat from a good-looking hybrid.
Scottish wildcats (Felis silvestris grampia) have several key differences: they have a wide, flat head, a bushy tail with dark rings and a distinctly striped coat. Also, they are more closely related to the European wildcat whereas domestic cats originate from the Mideast.
Unlike the domestic cat, the wildcat is a seasonal breeder. Mating occurs during February and two to four kittens are born approximately 68 days later.
The family breaks up after about 5 months, when the young leave to establish their own territory.
The Scottish wildcat is now fully protected by law and is recognised as a separate subspecies, Felis silvestris grampia, confined to the Central and Northern Highlands of mainland Scotland.
Their preferred habitat is upland forest with young trees, moorland, scrub and hill ground where they can lie up during the day in a den among rocky cairns, old fox earths, badger setts, or among tree roots.
The wildcat is a useful predator of pests such as rabbits and rodents and will also eat birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects and may scavenge fresh road casualties.
The Highland Wildlfe Park's breeding pair, Betidh and Hamish, have bred together previously but this was the first time they were paired for a number of years.
Betidh was born at the Park on 26th July 2006. Hamish was born on 30th April 2004 and arrived at the Park on 7th December 2007.
The Park is also home to another male wildcat, Zak, who was found as an abandoned kitten and brought to the Park on 19th September 2012.
Photo: Alex Riddell