'Beautiful' wildcats could return to Devon after more than 100 years

The wildcat is Britain's only remaining native cat species Credit: Devon Wildlife Trust/David R White

Wildcats could return to South West England for the first time in more than a century, thanks to a new study by the Devon Wildlife Trust.

The European wildcat, known as the woodcat in England, was once found throughout the UK but was hunted to near-extinction by the 18th century.

They can still be found in remote areas of Scotland, which has led them to be known as the 'Scottish wildcat', although a small population lived on Exmoor until the 1900s.

A national study recently found that the South West was among the best areas in England and Wales for their reintroduction.

Cath Jeffs, the South West wildcat officer for the Devon Wildlife Trust, explained why the region could be a lifeline for the species.

Wildcats are on the verge of extinction in Scotland and are subject to urgent species recovery action Credit: Devon Wildlife Trust/David R White

"Although we've got a road network, it's not as wide-ranging as in other parts of the country, there's good habitat potential, and there are relatively low numbers of people.

"This is a species that actually would rather be away from people. It's not particularly wanting to be near human habitation," she said.

The trust is currently carrying out a study, which includes speaking to the public, to assess the feasibility of reintroducing wildcats to the South West.

What is a wildcat?

Their scientific name felis silvestris means 'cat of the wood', so it's no surprise that the species commonly lives in woodland. They are native to continental Europe and Turkey.

It's important for the female cats to have a den for their kittens, while also being near scrub and grassland, where their prey - such as rabbits, mice and voles - live.

Wildcats look like our domestic tabby cats, but can be up to 25% bigger and chunkier, with long legs. They are typically smaller than foxes and present no danger to people.

They are secretive and solitary, so you are unlikely to see one out during the daytime.

Why reintroduce them to the South West?

Wildcats have been a protected species since the 1980s, after being wiped out primarily by human persecution.

"They co-evolved with our other wildlife in Britain and at the moment that is a part of our environment that is missing.

"One of the best things about the South West is the good network of hedges and steep gorges and river networks, that allow cats to move through the landscape," Cath said.

She added that, as a top predator, wildcats will remove sick and injured prey from the ecosystem.

"They're also likely to prey on rabbits and rats, which can be a beneficial thing for farmers."

The wildcat is Britain's only remaining native cat species Credit: Devon Wildlife Trust/David R White

Projects in continental Europe

Reintroducing this "charismatic, flagship" species can also help drive habitat improvements and Cath used similar projects in Europe as an example.

BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany) runs a 'wildcat village' between Leipzig and Frankfurt, which plans to reconnect the country's forests with corridors and green bridges.

A total 20,000 km are planned in Germany so that wild animals can migrate over large areas again, and they can breed and resettle in places where they were already extinct.

Cath added that the reintroduction of wildcats in Germany had already seen the species naturally migrate into the Netherlands, without the need for human intervention.

"It's one of those things. We've lost a lot of animals and we need to make the decision to bring them back or not. Because we're an island they're not going to naturally re-establish themselves.

"This is a beautiful creature that you're unlikely to see. Most people won't even know that they're out there. But if you did see one, how amazing would that be?"

What threats do they face?

Cath explained: "In Scotland, because the individuals are quite far apart, they struggle to find a mate and end up breeding with domestic cats.

"While they can produce fertile young, the hybrid cats are less suited to living in a wild environment and can experience health issues."

Drawbacks to wildcat reintroduction

Wildcats are reclusive and live at low densities, and Cath said they were unlikely to live in colonies.

"Any current deterrents used for foxes would apply to the wildcats.

"They aren't going to go into a chicken coop and kill everything. They kill to eat and survive, and that's it.

"We can say for certain that there won't be any impact, but there is no evidence of negative impacts in other projects.

"We are carrying out all the checks and assessments at the moment to make sure there won't be any adverse impacts," Cath said.

You can find out more about the South West Wildcat Project here. Cath will also be hosting a talk about the project in Fremington tomorrow night, Friday 9 February.