EXPERTS are to meet today to share ideas on saving one of Scotland's most threatened animals from extinction.The Scottish wildcat population has fallen sharply in the last few decades and is now thought to be about 3,500, although some estimates put it as low as 400.
One of the elusive predator's remaining strongholds is the Cairngorms and a conference there aims to set up a conservation project with the help of wildlife organisations, land managers, tourism operators, vets and cat welfare groups.
The conference is organised by the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA), the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA), the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and predator group Tooth & Claw.
Eric Baird, the vice-convener of CNPA, who is chairing the conference, said: "The current number of wildcats remains uncertain but we know the prognosis is not good with some estimates putting the population at a mere 400 individuals left in the wild.
"The biggest threat to the existence of the Scottish wildcat is thought to be hybridisation with feral domestic cats.
"We want to raise awareness of the plight of the Scottish wildcat and explore the implementation of a range of practical conservation actions to save this Scottish icon. We don't have all the answers at this time but this is an important first step in finding them."
In February, Michael Russell, the environment minister, launched the first survey for 20 years on the number and health of wildcats.
The last full survey, carried out between 1983 and 1987, found the species was restricted to an area north of the Central Belt.
Later research suggested it was confined mainly to Perthshire, Angus, Grampian and the eastern Highlands, with a small population in Argyll and Lochaber. The most recent study, in 1995, estimated there were 3,500 animals aged more than five months across Scotland.
The wildcat was once widespread throughout Europe, Asia and Africa but is now extinct in many countries. Its decline in Britain began in the early 1800s and it disappeared from England and Wales by 1862, leaving Scotland as its last mainland stronghold.
The population has been depleted by hybridisation with feral domestic cats, spread of disease, predator control and capture and the break-up and degradation of its natural habitat.
It has survived by clinging on in some areas, preying chiefly on rabbits but also on small birds and mammals.
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland keeps a small group of pure-bred native wildcats at Kincraig and in the past year they produced seven kittens.
Among the subjects being discussed at the conference will be neutering feral cats and vaccinating them against disease, as well as the promotion of responsible domestic cat ownership.
Allan Hodgson, of the SGA, said: "Gamekeepers working on the ground are in a position to be able to contribute a great deal, from providing information on wildcat sightings to feral cat management. We carry out feral cat control and would suggest that keeping feral cat numbers in check contributes to a reduction in hybridisation. We could certainly work more closely with members to increase awareness of wildcat identification so there is absolutely no risk to the species."
Jane Harley, a vet based in the national park, said wildcats were at risk from diseases common in feral cats: "The feline leukaemia virus, for example, is a highly contagious cat disease which can be vaccinated against.
"For those domestic cat owners who would like to play their part in protecting the wildcat my advice is to have their pet cats neutered and ensure that all vaccinations are up-to-date."