Byline: Julie-Anne Barnes
THEY have roamed our countryside for thousands of years.
But Scotland's purebred wildcat population faces extinction within months, experts warned yesterday.
Only 35 remain in the wild, in remote areas of the Highlands - but conservationists fear that the species is on the brink of disappearing because of interbreeding with their domestic cousins and feral cats.
Scientist have analysed 2,000 records of camera-trap sightings, witness reports and roadkills. They found that only 20 of these animals matched the striped coat markings of a true purebred wildcat.
When the researchers compared their findings to the estimated population of 3,500 crossbred wildcats, they concluded that there may only be 35 purebred animals left in the wild.
According to the Scottish Wildcat Association (SWA), the population has dwindled because hybrid-offspring are mating with other wildcats and feral cats to create a range of different animals that might look similar to the purebred wildcat, but act differently.
The latest findings are in stark contrast to reports earlier in the year, which claimed that hundreds of purebred wildcats had been found in the Cairngorms by the Cairngorms Wild-cat Project funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).
Steve Piper of the SWA said: 'However you juggle the numbers, it's hard to find anything positive.
'The overwhelming evidence is that the wildcat is going to be extinct within months - anything else is blind hope.'
Mr Piper added that if one used witness sightings as a marker for the population, then the outlook for the survival of the species was even worse.
He said: 'We've asked the leading experts in identifying wildcats to double-check the opinions of our team and no one thought those animals were true wildcats.
'Apparently, in the Cairngorms Project, if a hybrid looked close to a wildcat, then they were calling it a wildcat.
'The much-repeated phrase "expert-verified purebred wildcat" was exceptionally misleading. …