Wildcats will be reintroduced to the English countryside for the first time since they went extinct there in the 16th century.
Between 40 and 60 European wildcats – twice the size of a domestic cat – will be released in rural Devon and Cornwall as part of a pioneering conservation project.
Wildcats were hunted to extinction in most parts of Britain 500 years ago for their thick dense fur, besides the threat they pose to rabbits.
They are currently the country’s rarest native mammals, with only 200 living in the remotest corners of northern Scotland.
Experts say the wildcats – which will be released at secret locations in the South West – pose no threat to humans or pets.
Living in thick woodland and eating only small rodents and rabbits, the cats are skittish and flee at the sight of a person.
‘If we have the ability to save a nearly extinct species which once populated all of Britain until we hunted them to the brink why would we not reintroduce them,’ said Derek Gow, a conservationist and ‘rewilder’ who is working with the Devon Wildlife Trust on the project.
‘Now is the time for us to start reversing that trend.’
The 57-year-old was given five mating pairs of cats to breed on his farm in Lifton, Devon by Scotland’s Royal Zoological Society.
He has already run a successful capital breeding programme over the last few years.
Mr Gow hopes reintroducing wildcats will have an important ecological impact on the countryside, with the animals keeping ‘check on rampant mice and rabbit’ populations.
‘Along with beavers and pine martins they will play a key role in restoring our landscape to its natural state,’ he explained.
‘This is just one small step in the right direction, returning wildcats to our forests will help rejuvenate them.’
The cats will be released in coastal scrubland and dense forests, according to the Devon Wildlife Trust.
European wildcats are closely related to the domestic house cat, but not an ancestor.
They look much like normal tabby cats, though they are bigger and bulkier. They have longer legs, wider heads and pointy ears.
Their tail is distinctive, with three to five black rings on it before a black tip.
‘They naturally stay far away from human habitation and it will be a miracle if people even find evidence that they have been around, never mind come across them,’ said Peter Burgess, Director of Nature Recovery at the Devon Wildlife Trust.
‘With any luck they will slowly begin building up their population and repopulate the county and eventually the country.
‘We are confident that people will get behind the project and support saving a species which is nearly extinct.’
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