In preparation for a first UK release in 2023, conservationists are training wildcats how to hunt to wean them off human attention.
Wildcats, once widespread across the country, have dwindled to near extinction over several decades thanks to habitat loss and hunting, with the handful that remain relegated to remote parts of the Highlands.
Now, conservationists wish to reintroduce the animals in several places across the UK over the next few years, saying that their presence will help to keep rabbit populations (a nuisance to local farmers) down.
The reintroduction of the animals will mark the first major predator to be reintroduced to the UK in modern times.
Weaning wildcats off human attention
The Telegraph reports that, in preparation for a first release in the Cairngorms in 2023, conservationists are now teaching wildcats to rely on themselves rather than humans, using toys to train them in hunting.
Wildcat kittens are being bred and trained by scientists at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, who are teaching them to hunt rabbits in a special facility near to where they'll be released.
The scientists have been working closely with experts who released lynx in Spain to establish the best way to train the cats.
One key part of training will be to wean cats off human attention, as domestication in zoos and enclosures can lead to them becoming reliant on humans for food. Instead, they will be taught to hunt using toys, as use of live rabbits would contravene British wildlife laws.
Helen Senn, head of conservation at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland told The Telegraph: "What we are trying to do in terms of training is to try and mimic the natural conditions that these cats would encounter in the wild as much as possible, to give them the best chance once they are released into the wild.
"We can try and mimic the way an animal might have to hunt, or find food in the wild, so that would be doing things like randomising, the time at which animals are fed, trying to dissociate animals from human presence. So, for example, putting food into a timed box, so that it’s not associating a human coming into the enclosure with being fed, or being fed at a certain time."
She said cats are being taught to mimic hunting, while any positive associations with humans giving them treats are avoided to make sure cats fear them in the wild.
After the first release in Scotland in 2023, conservationists are hoping to see further releases in Wales and in Devon and Cornwall, where suitable habitats could accommodate them. When released, the cats will be fitted with GPS collars so scientists can track their movements and progress.
Progress on reintroduction is slower in England, where wildcat releases have not been agreed on, though Natural England has confirmed they are conducting discussions on the subject.