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Fears of Wipeout: Genetic Test Sought to Count Pure-Bred Scottish Wildcats

Sep 13, 2012 08:29 AM EDT

Pure-bred Scottish wildcats could be on the verge of extinction, finds a new study by the Scottish Wildcat Association (SWA).

There are only about 35 pure-bred wildcats in Scotland, which could become extinct in the months to come if proper conservation efforts are not taken.

A SWA team analyzed the over 2,000 records of wildcats and hybrids collected by various organizations over the last five years using reports from eyewitnesses and sightings on cameras.

They estimated the number of wildcats by identifying them based on pelage criteria. They found that one in hundred wildcats is a pure wildcat, while the rest were hybrids (cross-beds of animals from similar genetics).

Currently an estimated 3,500 wildcats are found in Scotland, which suggests that only 35 of them are pure wildcats and not cross-breeds. Factors such as inter-breeding with domestic and feral cats have contributed to the decline in the population growth of the pure-bred wildcats, reported BBC.

According to the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the population of wildcats has steadily decreased since the middle ages. It estimated the wildcat numbers to vary between 1,000 and 4,000, but said that less than 400 cats with the classical wildcat pelage are surviving in Scotland.

Moreover, the report also estimated about 150 breeding pairs of wildcats to be surviving. However, the new study points out to fewer than 100 pure-bred wildcats with the pelage.

"If you ignore the eyewitness sightings because they're unreliable the numbers get even worse," SWA chairman Steve Pipe told BBC.

"Even if you decide the population of hybrids is larger you have to multiply it to impossible levels to get to the commonly quoted figure of 400 wildcats," he said.

The SWA team members pointed out that a precise figure cannot be achieved unless a genetic test is performed. They noted that the SNH has to give licenses to conservationists to trap the wildcats and get blood samples in order to get an estimation of their population.

However, a SNH spokesman said that although they agree that the pure-bred wildcats are in precarious state, they could not jump into conclusions based on limited survey information available. He also added that the nation action plan known as the Wildcat Action Plan introduced in order to conserve the wildcats will seek to address the issues, the BBC report said.

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