Behind the scenes at Aigas wildcat breeding centre
Louise Hughes of Aigas Field Centre reveals how she cares for her three wildcat pairs and encourages them to breed.
Our large wildcat enclosures 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.
Wildcats have a varied diet in the wild, so we feed them a mixture of quails, rabbits and (when available) fresh roadkill. All are offered whole. Our wildcats often hunt woodmice and voles that squeeze through the wire mesh of their enclosures, meaning that they retain their instinct to kill. We also include a 'starve' day once a week, again to simulate natural conditions.
It's vital to know your animals inside out, so that you're instantly aware of behavourial changes that might mean someting isn't right, or indicate pregnancy in the case of a female. We keep human contact to a minimum, with no public viewing (to see captive wildcats, head to the Highland Wildlife Park at Kingussie in the Cairngorms). Just one ranger visits our cats daily - except for the 'starve' day when there is no contact at all. Camera traps enable us to keep an eye on the cats and help us monitor the interactions when new ones are introduced.
Adult female wildcats can be fertile any time between December and August - they come into heat twice a year - but the main mating season is late winter or early spring. The window when a female is receptive is extremely short, perhaps no more than a week. So when introducing males and females, it's absolutely critical that you do it early so as not to miss the chance of pregnancy.
Introducing a male and a female is nerve-racking. When the dividing hatch is opened, fur can fly, so you have to have people with soft brooms ready to intervene and separate the cats. But on occasion both cats seem not too bothered - some can take several hours before they become bold enough to investigate their new partners.
Just before giving birth, a female retires to her specially designed raised shelter box - you won't see her again until the kittens start emerging when they are about three weeks old. But she will come and take food when there's no one else around, so this is when the camera traps prove handy. Females have between one and eight kittens, and the male stays with them. The kittens are then removed at five to six months to mimic the point at which they would naturally disperse to find their own territory.
Aigas is one of five captive-breeding centres in the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan. We work closely together, not only sharing our wildcats but also swapping observations and advice. We have also visited similar facilities abroad, such as the Iberian lynx captive-breeding project in Portugal, returning with inspiration for new techniques at Aigas and the other centres.
Find out more at www.aigas.co.uk