The native European wildcat has a fragmented distribution across Europe from Scotland to Turkey and the Caucasus. Its formerly wide distribution declined rapidly and led to local expirations between the late 18th towards mid 20th century. As a result, the European wildcat received its first protective status with the Washington Convention (1973), followed by the Bern Convention (1979) and later as Annex IV ‘species of community interest in need of strict protection’ in the Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC (1992).
After receiving this legal protection status, translated into strict legal protection on many national and regional levels, the species showed signs of population recovery during the second half of the 20th century, followed by sporadic range expansion. However, the species face several anthropogenic threats and is still regarded as threatened at the national level of numerous EU Member States. Moreover, detailed knowledge on European wildcat distribution is still lacking. This is due to the fact that it remains difficult to study this shy species, which can easily be confused with domestic cats. Nowadays, research shows that European wildcat populations are fragmented throughout several Central, Western and Eastern European countries.
LIFE Wildcat: supporting and strengthening wildcat conservation in Central Europe
As the wildcat is a strictly protected species in the EU’s Habitats Directive, it is important that efforts to protect it continue. Despite the positive signs so far, wildcat populations still come under strong anthropogenic pressure. Threats, including a destruction of suitable habitats and lack of connectivity, poaching, mortality caused by collision with vehicles and hybridisation with domestic cats, continue to endanger wildcats in Europe.
This is why a consortium of experts consisting of environmental organisations, universities, protected areas, public institutes including several EUROWILDCAT members came together to tackle the conservation challenges that the fragmented populations of European wildcat face in Central Europe. This international partnership, including the European Wilderness Society jointly developed and submitted the unique project ‘LIFE Wildcat’ to the LIFE Programme of the European Union. The project specifically targets the countries and biogeographical regions with the worst conservation status and future prospects: the Carpathian region in Slovakia and the Czech Republic; the Atlantic region in Germany, specifically in the state of Lower Saxony; the Continental region in Germany and the Czech Republic; and the Pannonian region in Hungary and Slovakia. The project also includes Austria, where the latest reporting of Article 17 shows no data. However, experts found several individuals and at least one reproducing occurrence since 2003.
Main objectives of the project
The main goal of LIFE Wildcat is to support and strengthen population development of the European wildcat across Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary and Slovakia. Therefore, the project has the following objectives:
- Enhance the quality of data about the wildcat in the project areas to create a sound foundation for further measures
- Improve habitats and connectivity on a landscape level to establish a link from the Western-Central European to the Eastern-Central, Eastern and South-Eastern European metapopulation
- Identify mortality hotspots and reduce anthropogenic mortality risks
- Mitigate wildcat-domestic cat hybridisation to ensure genetic integrity
- Ensure survival in sparsely occupied yet suitable habitats through population reinforcement
- Centralise European wildcat data from current and previous efforts and build capacities for a better and more coherent conservation approach
- Increase awareness on political and public levels
Project proposal up for evaluation
LIFE Wildcat looks to improve this species’ protection in the Central European area. This will hopefully bring about the strengthening of several European metapopulations in the future. Evaluation will take place in the upcoming months. More news will follow!