A project to protect critically endangered species in Scotland has received a massive boost following its first successful breeding season.
The Saving Wildcats conservation partnership project has welcomed a total of 22 wildcat kittens who could be among the first of their species to be released into the wild in Britain.
Led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), Saving Wildcats is working with experts to restore the critically endangered wildcat population by breeding and releasing them into the Cairngorms National Park.
Planning is under way to release the kittens born this year into the Scottish Highlands in 2023.
David Barclay, Saving Wildcats conservation manager, said: “These kittens are the future of wildcats in Scotland with decades of extensive research showing their species is highly likely to go extinct in Britain if we do not carry out releases.
“Our target for the first breeding season was 20 kittens, so to have 22 in just six litters is a huge success which gives us a great base for the next phase of the project.”
He added that human presence around these kittens was kept to a minimum, so they would have the best possible chance of survival in the wild.
One they are completely independent and no longer reliant on their mums, they will be moved to pre-release enclosures designed to help prepare them for the wild.
Dr David Hetherington, nature networks manager at the Cairngorms National Park Authority, said: “The Cairngorms National Park is home to over 25% of the UK’s rare and endangered species and it is incredibly exciting to be working with national and international partners to plan wildcat releases here.
“Scotland’s wildcats have been identified as a priority species in our five-year Cairngorms Nature Action Plan and this successful first breeding season at the Saving Wildcats centre is a significant milestone in our collective efforts to save this critically endangered species from extinction in Britain.”
The six-year project is funded with the contribution of the LIFE Programme of the European Union and the support of the Garfield Weston Foundation, The National Trust for Scotland, The People’s Trust for Endangered Species and The European Nature Trust.