Decision Document - License Application 220947 - Licence to release captive breed Wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris (Scottish wildcat population)) into the wild with the aim of establishing a population of wildcats in the Badenoch and Strathspey area
Purpose of this document
This decision document:
- Explains how the application has been assessed;
- Provides a record of the decision-making process;
- Details how all material considerations as outlined in the Scottish Code for Conservation Translocation have been considered;
- Details the specific conditions added to the licence, in addition to our generic licence conditions.
Key factors of the assessment
1. Application summary
An application was received by NatureScot on 30th September 2022 to release Scottish wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris (Scottish wildcat population)) within the Cairngorms Connect Partnership Boundary plus the surrounding/contiguous habitat as part of the Saving Wildcats - reinforcing the wildcat population in Scotland project for the purpose of purpose of conserving wild animals.
The project seeks to address the decline of wildcats by conducting a release of a minimum of 60 wildcats from a dedicated captive breeding for release facility located at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park into Cairngorms Connect landscape in the Highlands of Scotland. The project aims to mitigate threats to wildcats at the release site and surrounding area and to monitor the release closely. With focused conservation action at a single site, the project also aims to lay the long-term foundation for the fuller recovery of wildcats across other sites in Scotland.
2. Our final decision
NatureScot Licensing Officers have undertaken a full assessment of the proposal to release Scottish wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris (Scottish wildcat population)) within the Cairngorms Connect Partnership Boundary. This assessment has been reviewed by the Licensing Manager who made recommendation to the Head of Wildlife Management for the decision as detailed below:
- The licence application to release Scottish wildcats within the Cairngorms Connect Partnership Boundary plus the surrounding/contiguous habitat
- The release site at within the Cairngorms Connect Partnership Boundary plus the surrounding/contiguous habitat has been approved. Further releases will be subject to approval by the NatureScot Licensing team.
3. How we reached our decision
3.1 Assessment of proposal against legislative requirements
Release of a non-native species
Under section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) it is illegal to release, allow to escape from captivity or cause to be at a place outside the control of any person any animal species outside its native range (as defined in the Act) without a licence. Therefore, any release of captive bred Wildcats into the wild in Scotland requires a non-native species licence under Section 16(4)(c) of the Act.
Requirement to possess, control and transport Wildcat for release
The applicant has applied for permission to possess (for the purpose of health screening only), transport and release of Wildcats within the Cairngorms Connect Partnership Boundary plus the surrounding/contiguous habitat. Wildcat releases will be conducted with the support of the Cairngorms Connect Partnership (Wildland Limited, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Forestry and Land Scotland and NatureScot).
The released wildcats will receive a final health assessment and disease screening prior to transfer to soft release enclosures. All individuals will have an active microchip and have up to date vaccinations. All individuals will have a final physical and behavioural assessment prior to release, taking into account behavioural monitoring data collected from CCTV observations during the pre-release training programme. All individuals will have a GPS collar fitted in advance of release during the final health assessment / disease screening process. All individuals will be free of injury and in good physical condition.
The activity is proposed for the principle purpose of conserving wild animals, with a view to reinforcing the wildcat population in Scotland. It will also have the secondary purpose of raising awareness within the local community of the biodiversity benefits of wildcats.
European Protected Species licensing of these activities requires that they meet the 3 licensing tests as follows:
Test 1 – There must be a licensable purpose:
This licence application was received under
- The Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 (as amended): Regulation 44 (2) (c)for the purpose of conserving wild animals and;
- The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) Section 16 (4)(c)
The release of Wildcats into the wild can be permitted under The Habitats Regulations 1994 for the following licensable purposes:
- Conserving wild animals (primary purpose).
- Science, research or education (secondary purpose).
There is a licensable purpose in this case and test 1 is passed.
Test 2 – There must be no satisfactory alternative:
NatureScot have considered the alternatives to granting a licence for the stated primary purpose (Regulation 44(3)(a) of The Habitats Regulations 1994). This included, not granting a licence, consideration of alternative locations and the timing; including whether allowing a natural process of colonisation would be a satisfactory alternative.
Scottish Wildcat Action partners commissioned members of the IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group to carry out an independent review of the conservation status of the wildcat in Scotland and the conservation work done to date.
The report concluded there is no longer a viable wildcat population living wild in Scotland, with hybridisation with domestic cats the major threat to their survival. This means the extinction of the species is highly likely without wildcat releases.
Do Nothing – This is not a satisfactory option in this case. Not granting a licence could result in there being a very good chance that “no action” will lead to the total extinction of the species on a national scale in direct opposition to the “Zero Extinction” Aichi Target 12 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (and target 4 of the zero draft of the post 2020 biodiversity framework) and of the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 target to “Ensure 30% of EU protected species and habitats are in favourable conservation status or have positive trends by 2030”.
Alternative Locations – There are currently no other proposed release sites in Scotland
On balance NatureScot considers that for the purpose of conserving Wildcats in Scotland there is not a satisfactory alternative to licensing the release of Wildcats out with their native range.
Test 2 is passed, there is no satisfactory alternative.
Test 3 – Actions will not be detrimental to Favourable Conservation Status:
According to the 2019 Article 17 report for the UK and conservation status species assessments the conservation status of Wildcat in Scotland is as follows: The Conservation Status of the Wildcat is “Critically Endangered”.
The work being done under this licence will help improve the conservation status in the hope that one day it will be favourable.
This licence application proposes the release of captive breed Wildcats. The Wildcats have been breed at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, Saving Wildcats Conservation Breeding for Release Centre. 151 cats formed the UK conservation (captive) breeding programme, at the point (01/10/2020) where a group (8 females & 8 males) were selected for transfer to the Saving Wildcats Conservation Breeding for Release Centre.
The release of Wildcats into the Cairngorms Connect Partnership Boundary will contribute to improving population numbers and genetic diversity and thereby the conservation status of the species in Scotland.
Test 3 is passed.
3.2 Assessment of proposal against Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations
NatureScot have assessed the benefits and risks of the proposal in line with the Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations. We have also considered the practical aspects of the project feasibility and desirability.
NatureScot considers there are likely to be local biodiversity and wider public benefits in terms of education and ecotourism. NatureScot considers the release of wildcats within the Cairngorms Connect Partnership Boundary presents a low risk of conflict occurring.
Applications to release wildcat to the wild in other locations in Scotland would be subject to the same decision process as guided by the Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations.
3.2.1 Release location suitability
The Cairngorms Connect project area is situated within the largest National Park in the UK, Cairngorms National Park (CNP), in the Highlands of Scotland. The project area stretches over 590 square kilometres and covers 13% of the National Park and represents a large expanse of well-connected wildcat habitat within a landscape very well covered by European protected sites.
Cairngorms Connect covers four landowners: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Scotland (NGO), Forestry and Land Scotland (Govt. organisation), Wildland Ltd (Private owner) and NatureScot (Govt. organisation). The land is primarily managed for nature conservation and has a plan to improve and restore habitats over the next two centuries. The land also supports farming, forestry, recreation and managed moorland.
Cairngorms Connect are undertaking the largest habitat restoration project in Britain focused on five key areas: 1. Reducing deer damage across the entire area 2. Restoring woodland habitats and process 3. Restoring key peatland habitats 4. Restoring natural hydrological process across the site’s floodplains 5. Making a significant contribution towards the maintenance and enhancement of the livelihoods and wellbeing of local people.
A 2015 study evaluated that the Cairngorms Connect area is situated within the largest block of contiguous wildcat habitat in Scotland (Kilshaw et al., 2015). The original survey and scoping report for the wildcat priority areas (Littlewood et al., 2014) indicated that a population of 40 cats (20 females, 20 male) stands a 95 % chance of survival over 50 years and that an area would need to be at least 4000 ha of suitable habitat in a matrix of other habitat types to support 20 females. Habitat modelling of the Cairngorms Connect project area conducted by NatureScot for the EU LIFE application in 2019 showed that 37.3 % (around 22,123 ha) is high quality within a range of other mixed habitats (Cairngorms Connect total area ~59,000 ha).
As with any release project, the selection of the release site attempts to balance a variety of factors including, in this case, the protected status of the site (that activities take place predominantly in European/Natura 2000 sites is a precondition of funding) and the relative risk of other threats e.g. hybridisation and persecution.
3.2.2 Assessment of potential impacts on designated sites
The release site has a number of designations: SAC designations within area: Cairngorms, River Spey & Insh Marshes (IM). 1 RAMSAR site also present at IM. SPAs within area; Abernethy Forest, Cairngorms Massif, River Spey – IM, Craigmore Wood & Cairngorms. National Nature Reserves (NNR) present in 5 locations; Glenmore, Abernethy, Cairngorms, Invereshie & Inshriach & IM. 7 SSSIs within area: North Rothiemurchus Pinewood, Northern Corries, River Feshie, River Spey - IM, Glenmore Forest, Abernethy Forest, Allt Mor & Cairngorms.
An appraisal in relation to regulation 48 of the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 as amended (Habitats Regulations Appraisal) has also been completed by NatureScot. It concludes: That there would be no adverse impact on the integrity of any of these designated sites and species as a result of the proposal to reinforce the wildcat population because:
The level of competition between golden eagles and wildcats was assessed to be too small to have a detrimental impact on eagles. Any direct impacts from wildcat releases on merlin, capercaillie, peregrine, osprey and otter would be small scale and temporary (if they occur at all), and would have no impact on their populations, their distribution, or their supporting habitats above and beyond any current impacts from an existing wild-living cat population. There would be no change to their populations, distributions, or supporting habitats as a result of the conservation objectives of this proposal or the in-situ-project activity required to achieve those outcomes.
3.2.2 Stakeholder engagement
The Scottish Code for Conservation Translocation sets out the expectation that those proposing a project will carry out a consultation that is proportionate to the project/ risk and will engage in genuine dialogue those most likely to be affected by the proposal.
In keeping with the IUCN Reintroduction Guidelines and the Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations, the Saving Wildcats project is already engaging with key local, national, and international stakeholders, and will continue to do so both during and after the intended translocations.
The primary purpose of the Saving Wildcats (#SWAforLIFE) project is to ensure the effective restoration of Scotland’s wildcats to the Cairngorms National Park, and therefore engaging with the communities within the core and wider project areas is a priority. In addition to these communities, the project also aims to communicate the benefits of wildcat restoration to wider audiences, in the hope that this will improve public perceptions of wildcats and increase support for the proposed translocation. Increasing awareness and support from local, national and international audiences are considered vital to the project’s success.
Saving Wildcats is building on the work of Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA) (2015-2020), the first national conservation plan for wildcats. The Saving Wildcats project has carried out outreach and engagement activities since 2019 and has reached over 1.6 million people through Facebook and 1.4 million people through Twitter (although there is likely to be some overlap), since the pages were inherited from SWA in 2020. In addition to local outreach, the project team have also engaged with over 1,000 people in events targeting national and international audiences.
Together with project activities directed at local communities, Saving Wildcats aims to engage with wider national and international stakeholders. Led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) in collaboration with NatureScot, Forestry and Land Scotland, Cairngorms National Park Authority, Nordens Ark and Junta de Andalucía, Saving Wildcats is supported by the LIFE programme of the European Union. With the support of these national and international partners, the project team is dedicated to promoting awareness and encouraging support from broader audiences. Since the start of the project, and building on Scottish Wildcat Action activities, Saving Wildcats had great success with project milestones through national press releases, TV appearances and regular online content.
The project also inherited the Scottish Wildcat Action social media channels at the end of 2020 and the Saving Wildcats outreach and engagement team has successfully grown audiences on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram since. The team will continue to regularly communicate via these platforms about plans for potential translocations and how Saving Wildcats audiences can help to save Scotland’s wildcats.
The results of this targeted landowner engagement generally suggest a high level of support for wildcats and the Saving Wildcats project aim to restore wildcats to Scotland. Every respondent of the drop-in sessions and the one-to-one meetings voiced positive views and opinions about wildcats as a species and were happy to see them reintroduced to the landscape as part of the natural heritage of Scotland. The only respondent (a rural resident) that was negative and critical of wildcat reintroduction had specific concerns surrounding the timing, location, and effectiveness of project activity, not a negative attitude towards the presence of wildcats.
3.3 Health screening and tagging
Prior to their release, all cats will receive a pre-release assessment as outlined in the Pre-release Strategy and Checklist in brief:
- All release candidates will receive a final health assessment and disease screening prior to transfer to soft release enclosures.
- All individuals will have an active microchip and have up to date vaccinations
- All individuals will have a final physical and behavioural assessment prior to release, taking into account behavioural monitoring data collected from CCTV observations during the pre-release training programme.
- All individuals will have a GPS collar fitted in advance of release during the final health assessment / disease screening process.
- All individuals will be free of injury and in good physical condition.
- All individuals will display minimal habituation to human presence.
- Any wildcats released will also need to be PIT tagged to enable future identification, for example at post mortem.
It is a condition on the licence that the licence holder is required to monitor the occupancy and expansion of the Wildcats post release. The licence holder must adhere to the Saving Wildcats: Post-release monitoring plan which was submitted with the application pack. This is to include Post-release behaviour of captive-born wildcats including movement, diet and hunting behaviour, resting and den sites, survival, and reproduction. The evaluation of project success and targeting ongoing threat mitigation. Changes in magnitude and distribution of threats to wildcats. Evaluation of threats from wildcats to other protected species. Behaviour, ecology, and genetics of second generation. Population ecology and genetics of wild-living population. Human attitudes towards wildcats and project activity.
4. The Legal Framework
Under regulation 39(3) of The Habitats Regulations 1994 it is an offence to possess or control wildcat and to transport wild beavers in Scotland.
However, regulation 44 of The Habitats Regulations 1994 allows derogation from the offences contained in regulation 39, provided three tests are met:
- There must be a licensable purpose as listed in regulation 44(2) of The Habitats Regulations 1994.
- There must be no satisfactory alternative (regulation 44(3)(a) of The Habitats Regulations 1994).
- The action authorised will not be detrimental to the maintenance of the population of the species concerned at a favourable conservation status in their natural range (Regulation 44(3)(b) of The Habitats Regulations 1994).
Regulations 44A and 45 of The Habitats Regulations 1994 provides NatureScot with powers as to terms and conditions of any licence it may issue under regulation 44.
The possession, control and transport of beavers for this project is licensed under regulation 44 of The Habitats Regulations 1994.
Under section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) it is an offence to release, allow to escape from captivity or cause to be at a place outside the control of any person any animal species outside its native range (as defined in the Act) without a licence. ‘Former native’ species are considered to be ‘non-native species’ for the purposes of the Act.
However, section 16(4)(c) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) provides a derogation from the offence contained in section 14 if the introduction of such an animal is in accordance with the terms of a licence granted by NatureScot.
Section 16(5) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) provides NatureScot with general powers as to terms and conditions of any licence it may issue under section 16.
The release of wildcats within the Cairngorms Connect Partnership Boundary is licensed under section 16(4)(c) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended).