European wildcats to be released across England
Watch the report on wildcats by ITV News Meridian's Tom Savvides.
British wildlife conservation charity, Wildwood Trust in Herne Bay, has announced the first steps in a groundbreaking new project to return the wildcat to England.
It will see the species return for the first time since the 1800s.
Working in partnership with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Vincent Wildlife Trust, along with experts at the University of Exeter, the project will be the first of its kind outside of Scotland.
It could herald a new dawn for this iconic British species which is on the verge of total extinction in the wild.
The European wildcat is Britain's rarest mammal and the only native cat species surviving in Britain.
The wild population is thought to be less than 300 animals, living exclusively in the remote Scottish Highlands but that population has been declared "functionally extinct" which means that there is no longer a viable population left in the wild.
The species was hunted and persecuted to extinction in England and Wales a century ago, resulting in its disappearance.
Loss and fragmentation of habitat and more recently interbreeding with domestic and feral cats, means it has not been able to return. Until now.
Wildwood Trust will be breeding wildcats for the future reintroductions and has launched a fundraising appeal to raise vital funds to build ten new breeding facilities across its two sites in Kent and Devon.
The Trust needs £50,000 to complete the build and is calling on the public to get involved by donating to the project and giving wildcats a brighter future.
Each enclosure will house a breeding pair of cats, whose kittens will later be released into the wild. Wildcat mating usually takes place between January and March with litters of 1-8 kittens born in April-May.
Breeding wildcats is notoriously difficult, as any noise and disturbance can adversely affect the cats.
To ensure the survival and safety of the kittens, stress must be kept to a minimum.
With this in mind, the new breeding enclosures will be built off-show at Wildwood Trust's parks, helping to prepare kittens for life in the wild.
The wildcat is one of the few native predators left in Britain and performs important ecosystem functions.
A healthy population of wildcats will help to restore the balance in the ecosystem by controlling numbers of prey animals, such as rabbits and rodents, and of predators such as foxes through competition for food.