Feral cats could be released in England for the first time in hundreds of years as the Wildlife Trusts recruit an expert to help reintroduce them to the wild.
After being hunted to extinction, the European wildcat is now the UK’s rarest native mammal. They are larger than the domestic cat, which is descended from African wild cats. It hasn’t been spotted in southern England since the 16th century, but it now seems possible the animal may be found stalking the landscape once again.
After the Vincent Wildlife Trust found the Devon and Cornish bramble forest to be the most suitable place for the release of the downy predators, the local Wildlife Trust began to take serious action to see if they could release them. reintroduce.
The charity hires a wild hunt agent, who will be responsible for determining if it is possible to release the mammals.
Once widespread across the UK, the cats are only found in remote parts of Scotland. This small population is deemed non-viable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with 30 wild animals showing a high degree of hybridization with domestic cats.
Peter Burgess of the Devon Wildlife Trust is partly responsible for the success of the beaver trial on the River Otter, which is home to a thriving wild population of once locally extinct rodents. He is now investigating how feral cats could be reintroduced by the Wildlife Trust in Devon.
“Preliminary feasibility studies have shown there is very strong potential for them in the South West of England,” he told the Guardian. “Now we’re taking it to the next level, looking at any impact they would have on the ecosystem and seeing if there’s support in the local community.”
Burgess hopes it will be possible to reintroduce them. “They were once widespread across the UK and are now our rarest mammal on the brink of extinction.”
Feral cats would provide ecological benefits, according to Burgess, as a “significant predator that has been removed from the landscape”.
The cats would be released from a “herdbook” of genetically strong feral cats, which might one day produce kittens to release. This was created by both zoos and private breeders.
One of the reservations people have about the release of feral cats is that there are so many domestic cats on the landscape now that there are concerns about hybridization. “They tend to avoid house cats, but we’ll spend the 18 months looking for feral cat populations,” Burgess said.
Those who are interested in rewilding news will have followed the long saga of beaver releases. The process of releasing beavers back into the wild has been slow, but if there are no community or habitat issues, it is hoped that this project can move forward much faster, as feral cats are a native species with few regulations regarding their release.
Burgess said: ‘We will adhere to Defra’s code for species reintroductions – assessing the impact on protected sites, for example. We should have an assessment of the habitat regulations, but even without needing a specific permit, we would ask for government support.
Some farmers worry that feral cats will disturb their livestock or eat their sheep, but experts say that wouldn’t happen because feral cats like to hide and rarely take anything larger than a small rodent.
Devon-based farmer-turned-rewilder Derek Gow is helping with the project and hopes it means feral cats could be back on the landscape by 2025.
“I’d like to think we’ll have free-roaming cats in England again by 2025. Once we have the feasibility information, we’ll look at how we produce cats that we can help get out into a wilder environment. “It’s a relatively simple process. To be clear, everything will be done responsibly within IUCN guidelines,” Gow said.
He said the project was incredibly important. “We want to do it responsibly, but we don’t want to talk for 50 years and do absolutely bullshit. It is a small animal that is very endangered and it will disappear from this island in our lifetime if we do not act now. We need to bring it back to the habitats it used to occupy. It’s not just about doing something new, it’s about saving one of our most iconic animals from extinction. We eliminated him because we wanted his thick, dense fur and didn’t want him to eat our precious rabbits.