Wildcats: UK's rarest mammal could be reintroduced into the wild on Exmoor

Wildcats look similar to domestic tabby cats but are larger, and have a stockier, more fluffy, blunt tail Credit: Elliot Smith

Plans have been announced to look at the possibility of reintroducing the wildcat to the South West for the first time in more than a century.

Devon Wildlife Trust has stated it wants to appoint what is believed to be England’s first ‘Wildcat Project Officer’, who could then examine whether reintroducing the species would be feasible.

European wildcats once lived throughout the UK and were prolific in the South West. But hunting brought the number of them down before they eventually went extinct in England and Wales in the 18th century.

In England, the West Country proved to be one of the final strongholds for wildcats with evidence suggesting there may have been a small population surviving on Exmoor until just over a century ago.

Today, wildcats are on the verge of extinction in Scotland and are subject to urgent action to save the species.

Now conservationists are hoping to bring the cat back as they are thought to have played an important ecological role.

Peter Burgess, the trust's director of nature recovery, said the appointment of a wildcat project officer is just the 'beginning of the process'.

He said: "There’s a lot for us to do before this becomes a reality. Much of this will involve working with local communities to see if reintroduction is feasible. As yet we have no scheduled date for any animals to be released.

"Wildcats are the UK’s rarest mammal and are on the verge of extinction in Scotland - their last refuge. They are now subject to urgent species recovery action – we want to investigate the possibility of the South West being part of this."

Wildcats look very similar to a large domestic tabby cat, but are stockier and have a fluffier, blunt tail which has distinct banding. The cats also have markings on their bodies that make them recognisably different from their domestic cousins.

Peter added: "The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

"The reintroduction of key species, such as wildcats, is part of our wider work to see wildlife and wild places restored.”  

Devon Wildlife Trust's plan to reintroduce the wildcat follows a preliminary ecological feasibility study carried out by Vincent Wildlife trust, which concluded that some regions including the South West warrant further exploration for wildcat reintroduction.

It also highlighted that Devon was especially worthy of further examination, along with the North and West of Wales.

The trust's new wildcat project officer would assess the suitability of different localities for the animal's return, as well as leading scientific assessments, a social feasibility study and a comprehensive public engagement programme.

This would all be done while following guidelines established by the International Union for Conservation of Nature on the reintroduction of species.