Wednesday, 11 September 2019

SCOTTISH WILDCAT CRISIS


wild by name, wild by nature, all teeth, claws, muscle and attitude to match
Blood dripped profusely from my hand as I walked up the steps of the hospital, a red trail leading to reception and forming a pool on the floor. The nurse asked what I’d done, the answer not what she expected, her expression incredulous. I’d been bitten by a Scottish wildcat.
one of Scotland's ultimate gems

Several stitches later I left Grantown on Spey hospital, bandaged but able to continue my work, making a film on ‘The Great Wood of Caledon’ and it's wildlife for ITV. I felt it essential that one of my key characters had to be this rarest of animals.
the Caledonian pine forests of the Spey Valley in the Highlands, a last stronghold for the Scottish wildcats

doing what they do best, trying to be invisible in the forest
On a recent BBC news item, several authorities stated that the native Scottish Wildcat is one of the most endangered species in the world and with only about 35 survivors left, even rarer than the giant panda. Hybridization with feral cats has brought it close to extinction and one biologist even declared it to be functionally extinct in the wild. Being almost impossible to see in the wild, I'll always wonder how they calculated that total of 35, for over many years I've only been lucky enough to catch a few glimpses in the dense forest.

such beautiful creatures and deserving of all the help we can provide so they survive for years to come
The situation wasn’t as critical in the early nineties when I was attempting to tell their story but I needed a pair of true wildcats in the hope of captive breeding so their lifecycle could be intimately filmed.

this is the area of forest that we felt would make a perfect home for our cats
With the considerable help of friends such as my colleague Michael Richards  and not least Jo and Molly Porter, we built a huge escape proof enclosure in a dense area of remote forest. 

fallen scots pines and larch would provide the cats with cover

upturned tree roots are always favourite places for sunbathing cats

enclosure building in all weathers ... and there's always plenty of weather in Scotland
many hands make light work - thank you guys and gals


Scots pines and fallen larch with dense ground cover and rocky caves seemed a perfect habitat for our cats, and once netted up the sides and over the roof, we felt they would be secure and happy with their new home.
if the film failed we could at least get a job as scaffolders with SGB 
It was an impressive structure and on reflection seemed like madness but my ambition knew no bounds. I still can't believe how we managed to wire a roof over the top of all the big trees. Madness indeed!

We even managed to get the scaffold lorry stuck in the mud and had to hike a long way to find a friendly farmer.







Once the enclosure was complete we were loaned a true native female from the Edinburgh Zoological Society and she soon settled in with what seemed happy approval of her new home. 

she loved the wind blown trees as a look out for prey and we hoped kittens might one day appear from the cave
We needed a male to join her and I put the word out with several friendly keepers. In those bad old days wildcats were persecuted but one kind keeper trapped a magnificent male and took it to the Highland Wildlife Park for safe keeping until we were ready to re-house it.

We approached his temporary enclosure and there hiding on a shelf was the most magnificent cat, twenty pounds of extremely angry feline, ears flat with fear, growling with such menace that his scowl could kill. I've been snarled at a few times by tigers in India but this was in a fiercer league. All we had to do was capture him, put him in a box and take him to his new home. Simple!

Armed with thick leather gauntlets, the head keeper was going to grab him by the tale while I held his fang armed head with a noose on a pole. I was worried I would strangle him so didn’t hold the noose tight enough and suddenly he escaped my grip and I was confronted by this fierce and angry cat that was all claws and teeth and even though he was held by the tail he flew at me like a whirling dervish. It was really quite frightening as twenty pounds of truly wild cat tried to claw my face as he growled and spat while attempting to kill me.

Watching outside, my wife and daughter screamed in fear and though it all happened in a blur, it seemed the only way to quell the attack was to grab him by the sharp end and so plunged my hand into his mouth. He bit me so hard through the thick leather gauntlets that the blood blisters and wounds from his canines took weeks to heal. His strength was most impressive as we forced him into the box, the adrenalin rush replaced by relief. What a battle.

the male was never relaxed in my presence, threatening me if I ventured too close, if I could find him

Within an hour we had released this magnificent male in the enclosure and so dense was the cover and his ability to hide I didn’t see him for weeks. I sat silently in hides for days with no success but when I crept round looking, he would suddenly leap out in front of me and growl explosively while stamping his foot in anger. His spitting fire always made me step sharply back in shock.
those flattened ears prove our male was never at ease, even after several weeks. He sure was a wild cat.
Our female was much more benign and I captured some lovely film of her simply being a wild pussy cat in the forest. It was a memorable privilege.

compared with our male, our lady was completely at ease in our huge enclosure
what a delightful pussy cat
grooming was a daily ritual

I was lucky enough to film her stalking prey
 On one day the mouse was actually dead and pulled by a string to get her to pounce - ‘cheating’ I know but it looked very convincing and she seemed to 'enjoy' the game.

wound up to strike
Unfortunately the story has a sad ending because in spite of the notice attached to the enclosure explaining the reason for the captive breeding attempt, some supposed ‘do-gooder’ broke open the gate and released the cats. No doubt soon after some keeper probably shot them for we never saw them again.

I pray that these ancient forests will provide a safe home for one of the world's rarest animals long into the future
Captive breeding of true native Scottish wildcats is now being carried out successfully by various conservationists and we can only hope that this magnificent creature survives to inspire us all for many years to come. I feel quite honoured to have been a bloody victim of their fierce will to live.

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