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Parliamentary Debates and Questions

S5W-13556: Andy Wightman (Lothian)

Scottish Green Party

Date lodged: 19 December 2017

To ask the Scottish Government what research (a) it has and (b) its agencies have commissioned on the development of a genetic test to identify Scottish wildcats; how much this cost, and whether it will publish the findings.

Answered by: Roseanna Cunningham 16 January 2018

The Scottish Government has not directly commissioned research on the development of a genetic test to identify Scottish wildcats but Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has, from the early 1990s to the present day, commissioned research into the classification and genetics of Scottish wildcats.

In 1992, SNH initiated a comprehensive study into the morphology, genetics and behavioural ecology of wild-living cats in Scotland. This work was largely taken forward by SNH staff and resulted in several publications (Balharry D, Daniels MJ (1998) Wild living cats in Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage Research, Survey and Monitoring Report No 23; Beaumont M, Barratt EM, Gottelli D, et al. (2001) Genetic diversity and introgression in the Scottish wildcat, Molecular Ecology 10, 319-336).

In 2009, SNH commissioned the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit of the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford to carry out a comparison of genetic data and pelage criteria. This work cost SNH £14,988 and is published (Kilshaw, K, Drake, A., Macdonald, D.W. & Kitchener, A.C.(2010) The Scottish wildcat: a comparison of genetic and pelage characteristics. Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No.356).

In 2012, SNH issued a contract to the value of £5,778 to the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Chester, for genetic analysis to help assess the purity of the contemporary population of Scottish wildcats within the Cairngorms National Park. No findings have been received by SNH from this contract and SNH has been in correspondence with the University of Chester to resolve the situation.

In 2013, SNH commissioned an independent review of information on wildcat genetics, carried out by scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, as part of a Conservation Genetics Knowledge Transfer project. The outcome of the review is published (Neaves, L.E. & Hollingsworth, P.M. 2013. The Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris); A review of genetic information and its implications for management. Conservation Genetic Knowledge Exchange, Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh).

In 2013, SNH in partnership with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) funded a trial to identify the presence of wildcat and feral cat populations within the wildcat range based on genetic testing of droppings. Droppings were collected by trained volunteers and submitted for testing using pre-paid sample kits. The results of this work are available to SNH, but were not published as a commissioned report as many of the samples submitted turned out not to be from cats, but rather from foxes and pine marten. This work cost SNH £6,000.

In 2013, SNH issued a contract valued at £11,000 to the Wildgenes Laboratory at the RZSS for the genetic testing of samples from potential wildcat priority areas. Findings are included in SNH Commissioned Report 768 and in the report ‘Wildcat Hybrid Scoring for Conservation Breeding under the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan’ (Littlewood, N.A., Campbell, R.D., Dinnie, L., Gilbert, L., Hooper, R., Iason, G., Irvine, J.,Kilshaw, K., Kitchener, A., Lackova, P., Newey, S., Ogden, R. & Ross, A. 2014. Survey and scoping of wildcat priority areas. Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No. 768. Senn HV and Ogden R, Wildcat Hybrid Scoring For Conservation Breeding under the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan (2015), Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, May 2015. https://www.nature.scot/wildcat-hybrid-scoring-conservation-breeding-under-scottish-wildcat-conservation-action-plan).

Since 2015, as part of a commitment under the Scottish Government’s Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan, which is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, £13,900 has been paid to the Wildgenes Laboratory for the genetic testing of samples collected during the project, including £2,100 to cross-reference previously analysed samples against a more detailed genetic test. Data has been made available to SNH and an update was provided to project stakeholders and partners during a Wildcat Forum held in November 2017. A report has not yet been published because data collection and analyses are on-going.