Feral cats could be released in England for the first time in hundreds of years as Wildlife Trusts recruit an expert to help introduce them back into the wild.
After being hunted to extinction, the European wildcat is now Britain’s rarest native mammal. They are larger than the domestic cat, which is descended from the wild cats of Africa. It hasn’t been spotted in southern England since the 16th century, but now it looks like the animal will be found after stalking the countryside again.
After the Vincent Wildlife Trust found the woodlands of Devon and Cornwall to be the most suitable place for the fluffy predators to be released, the local Wildlife Trust has started taking steps to see if they can reintroduce them.
The charity employs a feral cat officer, who is tasked with finding out whether it is possible to release the mammals.
Once widespread throughout Britain, the cats are only found in the remote areas of Scotland. This small population is no longer considered 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 successful beaver trial on the River Otter, which boasts a thriving wild population of the once locally extinct rodents. He is now looking at how feral cats can be reintroduced by the Wildlife Trust in Devon.
“Preliminary feasibility studies have shown that there is a really big potential for them in south-west England,” he told the Guardian. “Now we’re taking it to the next level, looking at the impact they’ll have on the ecosystem, and seeing if there’s support in the local community.”
Burgess hopes it will be possible for them to be reinstated. “They used to be very widespread across the UK and are now our rarest mammal on the brink of extinction.”
The feral cats would provide ecological benefits, according to Burgess, as “an important predator that has been removed from the landscape”.
The cats would be released from a “stud book” of genetically strong feral cats, which could one day produce kittens to be released. This is made by both zoos and private breeders.
One of the reservations people have about releasing feral cats is that there are so many domestic cats out in the countryside now that there is concern about hybridization. “They tend to avoid domestic cats, but we will spend the 18 months looking for feral cat populations,” Burgess said.
Those interested in breaking 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 concerns, it is hoped that this project can move much faster, as feral cats are a native species with few regulations surrounding their release.
Burgess said: “We will follow Defra’s code for species reintroduction – for example assessing the impact on protected areas. We need to have an assessment of habitat regulations, but even without needing a specific licence, we will seek government support.”
Some farmers are concerned that feral cats could disturb their livestock or eat their sheep, but experts say this will not happen as feral cats like to hide and rarely take anything larger than a small rodent.
Derek Gow, a farmer-turned-rewilder based in Devon, is helping with the project and hopes it means feral cats could be back in the countryside by 2025.
“I’d like to think we’d have free-ranging cats in England again by 2025. Once we have the feasibility information we’ll look at how we produce cats that we can support to go out into the wilder environment. It’s a relatively straightforward process. To be clearly, everything will be done responsibly within IUCN guidelines,” Gow said.
He said the project was incredibly important. “We want to do this responsibly, but we don’t want to talk for 50 years and get it completely wrong. It is a small animal that is highly endangered and will disappear from this island within our lifetime if we do not act now. We need to get 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 culled it because we wanted the thick dense fur and didn’t want it to eat our precious rabbits.”