A CONSERVATION project is celebrating a successful first breeding season with the birth of 22 wildcat kittens.

It is hoped the animals, also dubbed the "Highland tiger", could be among the first of their species to be released into the wild in Britain.

Led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), Saving Wildcats is working with national and international experts to restore Scotland’s critically endangered wildcat population by breeding and releasing them into carefully selected locations in the Cairngorms National Park.

Planning is under way to release the kittens, which were born between April and August this year, into the Highlands in 2023.

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David Barclay, Saving Wildcats conservation manager, said “These kittens are the future of wildcats in Scotland with decades of extensive research showing their species is highly likely to go extinct in Britain if we do not carry out releases.

“Our target for the first breeding season was 20 kittens, so to have 22 in just six litters is a huge success which gives us a great base for the next phase of the project.

“While human presence is kept to a minimum to give these cats the best possible chance of survival after release, our small team of expert keepers are able to monitor the kittens and their parents on remote cameras. It has been fantastic to watch them grow and develop over the summer.

“Once the kittens are fully independent and no longer reliant on their mums, they will move into special pre-release enclosures which are designed to help prepare them for the many challenges of life in the wild.”

Planned releases of wildcats in Scotland are subject to a translocation licence.

The Saving Wildcats project is based in a quiet area away from visitors at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie.

It is led by RZSS in collaboration with NatureScot, Forestry and Land Scotland, the Cairngorms National Park Authority, Norden’s Ark, and environment authorities in Andalucia, Spain.

Dr David Hetherington, nature networks manager at the Cairngorms National Park Authority, said: “The Cairngorms National Park is home to over 25% of the UK’s rare and endangered species and it is incredibly exciting to be working with national and international partners to plan wildcat releases here.

“Scotland’s wildcats have been identified as a priority species in our five-year Cairngorms Nature Action Plan and this successful first breeding season at the Saving Wildcats centre is a significant milestone in our collective efforts to save this critically endangered species from extinction in Britain.”