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A Visit to Aigas Field Centre: Part 3 – Pine Marten and Scottish Wildcats

Aigas has a series of wonderful wildlife viewing hides that provide different opportunities for species and wildlife watching. The Campbell Hide is the one I spent a few evenings in, as it was pretty close to where I was staying and it was where the pine marten was visiting just about every night. It is tucked away in a thinned forestry plantation and has night lights, illuminating the area, making excellent viewing.

With my ISO pushed up to over 12,000, I was able to get about 1/60th of  second which is just enough to capture an image. To be honest, I was much more interested in just revelling in the fact that I was watching a pine marten so close, and I was not too fussed about getting too many images. A small amount of food is put out every night and both marten and badger visit.  It is certainly a wonderful opportunity for people to see these animals in the wild and I loved my two evenings I spent in there….

There are a number of pine marten visiting and all  identified by their bib pattern. Aigas keep detailed records of all the nightly visits and ID the individuals wherever possible. This one is ‘Spot’; a female, and she is the most regular visitor at the moment.We are really hoping that some marten appear on our Birdsy camera set-up. I captured one on my trail cam down by the loch.

The other creatures I was really hoping to see were the beaver, but sadly, I did not get the chance to do that this time and, despite setting a few trail cams around the loch on possible areas, the short time I had meant no clips this time. I look forward to seeing what the rangers capture….

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Another very exciting project I was very interested to find more about was the Scottish wildcat breeding programme. Since 2011, Aigas Field Centre has been contributing to an important national programme to bring back the Scottish wildcat from the edge of extinction. Aigas are working in partnership with Scottish Wildcat Action, which includes efforts to protect what’s left in the wild and a conservation breeding programme led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS).

The Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) is larger than its continental cousins. It has the appearance of a large and muscular tabby cat with a broad, flat head and a distinct fur pattern, including the distinctive dark rings around the thick, blunt tail.

Wildcats and domestic cats can hybridise and this is now the greatest threat to the gene pool of the Scottish wildcat.  Wildcats are solitary and occupy large ranges, which rarely overlap except for when the female is in oestrus, which she will advertise through her scent marking and a blood curdling wailing They are almost purely carnivorous and consume almost every part of their prey, which consists mostly of rabbits, voles and other rodents and some ground nesting birds.  

Aigas have a series out outside enclosures for their breeding pairs of wildcat which aim to recreate the wildcats’ natural habitat as far as possible. There are bushes and long grass for the cats to hide in, boulders, wooden walkways and high platforms. Shelter boxes mimic dens in the wild  – essential for females to give birth in peace and quiet.  Ben, the Aigas’s Staff conservationist, explained, “The future of the wildcat in Scotland is dependent on two main objectives. The first is to breed a genetically strong and diverse captive population ready for release. The second is to address the threats these animals face in the wild.Hopefully by focusing effort in a select few areas across the country wildcats can be released into healthy heartlands from where they can begin to build up a strong population in the wild.”

I was lucky enough to be taken to see one of Aigas’s pairs of wildcats. As a lifetime owner of cats, it was amazing to compare them to the domestic tabbies I have owned in the past. Way larger and stockier, they certainly looked a formidable hunter. The male in this pair was particularly well marked and a total stunner. It is the tail that looks most different to a domestic cat. Thicker and longer, with clear banding, it is one of the most distinguishing marks.

The female was much paler in coloration. She is now nearly 12 years old, so this may be her last chance to breed now.

Lat year, two kitten were born to one of the Aigas pairs…. just look at these beauties!

It would be a travesty to lose these incredible cats from the Scottish landscape. These breeding programmes are essential to ensure that these impressive cats have a chance to roam the Highlands  in as pure a form as possible.

Ben put a trail camera in the enclosure for me. I wanted to see what these cats would look like on night trail cam footage. Many areas are monitored by such devices and individuals are encouraged to report any possible sightings of wildcat.

Just imagine how wonderful it would be if this footage had been captured in the wild… let’s hope this will be more possible in future years with all the wonderful work that is going on to save this species.

Aigas have just launched a new appeal, to try to raise some funds to build a new breeding enclosure with connecting tunnels. You can find out more about it by clicking on the image below:

It was a privilege to be able to see these cats, even if they were not wild. Seeing them made me appreciate how important it is to do everything we can to save them. Please support this project if you can.

I look forward to hearing how the breeding programme develops this year and whether Aigas will welcome more Scottish wildcat kittens to the family in 2020.


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