Recording one of Scotland’s few remaining wildcats on camera was “a bit like looking at a unicorn”.
Dr Paul O’Donoghue, chief scientific advisor for Wildcat Haven, was over the moon at the footage which finally catpured one of the cats in all its glory.
His excitement was both palpable and understandable, with only around 35 true wildcats left in Scotland – 22 of which are monitored by the not-for-profit conservation project.
For ten years, the group has focused on creating safe havens for the species in the West Highlands.
But it was a determined Aberdeenshire volunteer who finally managed to get the all-important video.
Described as the wildcat whisperer by Paul, Kevin Bell has tramped hundreds of miles of Aberdeenshire’s countryside on foot to catch a glimpse of the elusive feline.
And his determination paid off when one ran out in front of him on a forest path.
Paul explained: “We’ve been closely monitoring key sites in Aberdeenshire in the last couple of years, thanks to Kev’s eyewitness accounts.
“He went out with just three camera traps and immediately started returning images of these stunning cats.
“But the latest footage, catpured in January or February, is fantastic – it’s almost as if the cat is posing for the camera, doing a little beauty pageant for us!
“It’s the biggest discovery in Scottish wildlife conservation anyone has ever made.
“It’s like the Holy Grail in terms of Scottish wildcat monitoring.”
What makes the footage all the more exciting for the team is that the population of wildcats in Aberdeenshire is of very high purity.
The one captured on video is the first living wildcat to score full marks on a 21-point scale used to identify wildcat purity.
And its exceptional quality has been verified by an independent expert at the National Museums of Scotland.
“No-one has ever seen a wildcat this good in the wild before,” said Paul. “It feels a bit like looking at a unicorn.
“It is so often described as extinct, bordering on mythical – it’s a bit like spotting Nessie!
“But we have always been confident they’re still out there and we now have video evidence to prove it.
“The Scottish wildcat is an incredible survivor – and this footage shows, despite all odds, it is still out there.
“Now we must protect it from the threat of hybridisation with domestic cats, as well as from the government’s action plan.
“The government is licensed to capture wildcats for a captive breeding programme but it has a dismal track record.
“So we’re not disclosing the location of our wildcats to anyone.
“We don’t believe these beautiful cats should be condemned to a cage for people to gawp at – that would be a real tragedy.
“It’s too big a risk to take with the rarest animal in the world – the Scottish wildcat is 70 times rarer than the giant panda.
“These cats should be left in their wild habitat, where they have survived for generations.”
And to achieve that goal, Wildcat Haven is now looking for a dedicated band of Aberdeenshire volunteers to ensure their continued survival in the wild.
Thanks to Kev, Wildcat Haven now has evidence of around 12 wildcats in Aberdeenshire.
Sadly, not all proved to love the camera. But they all appear to be in good health and the group aims to ensure that remains the case.
“It is a pocket of very pure wildcats,” said Paul. “Kev’s even seen kittens during his travels.
“We call him the wildcat whisperer because we’ve never met anyone like him for finding wildcats.
“But he’s put the work in – he doesn’t use a vehicle so the cats aren’t scared off.
“Fair play to him: he’s walked hundreds of miles in the rain and snow and it’s finally paid off.
“We now need to put a plan in operation to safeguard the cats’ future.”
Part of that plan is sharing this exceptional discovery with members of the public.
Paul explained: “This video is brilliant for our wildcats because they’re finally getting the attention they deserve.
“It is Scotland’s last major carnivore and if people don’t help us protect them, we will lose them.
“So this video is helping us tell people about these cats, raising their profile, which in turn will hopefully help us fundraise to protect these cats for the long term.”
Phoenix rises from extinction
The wildcat featured in Kevin Bell’s video is now being called Phoenix because she has risen from the flames of extinction to help prove wildcats are alive and well in Scotland.
Only 35 are believed to exist in the wild, which are not hybrids, so Scotland’s wildcat can claim the title of the rarest animal in the world – followed by the giant panda, of which there are 2500.
People who are interested in helping Wildcat Haven protect the animals will need patience – in ten years with the project, Paul has only ever spotted four in the wild. But the team are keen for more locals to come on board.
Explaining why, Paul said: “Kev has shown that local knowledge is key when it comes to finding wildcats.
“Our project has always been community driven because local people know the land and the landowners so are far more likely to know where a population exists or to even have spotted a cat or two.
“So we’re looking for a team of volunteers in Aberdeenshire who can help us safeguard the future of the local population.”
To see Kev’s video or volunteer, visit the group’s website www.wildcathaven.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul is also keen to hear from anyone who would like to donate funds to the cause.
He added: “The more funding we receive, the more of these beautiful cats we can protect so we’d be delighted to hear from anyone who can lend a hand, be it volunteering or donating funds.”
* Wildcats hunt for rabbits, birds and small mammals and have a territory of around ten mile square.
A dominant male will have two to three females in his territory. Mothers are fiercely protective.
Known as Highland tigers, wildcats have a larger brain than domestic cats to help them solve problems in the wild.