Monitoring and conservation of the wildcat in Switzerland 2015-2018
The European wildcat Felis silvestris is a protected species. Wildcats are cryptic and solitary inhabitants of forests. The size of their home ranges depends on resources such as prey availability, availability of resting sites but also on the season. In Switzerland, the wildcat was widely distributed over the Swiss plateau and the Jura Mountains. After the 19th century, its occurrence was restricted to the Jura Mountains. It is unclear, if the wildcat disappeared completely during the 20th century in the Jura Mountains, or if it remained as a residual population.
The status of the wildcat in Switzerland has, for the first time, been assessed in recent years. It is suspected that some hundred individuals live predominantly in the Jura Mountains. Today, the wildcat is again regularly observed in the Swiss Jura Mountains. The wildcat is spreading, and appears to also slowly recolonise the Swiss plateau. The exact distribution and the population dynamic of the wild cat in Switzerland are unknown. There is no established long-term monitoring, and reports of sight observations are not reliable because of the risk of confusion with similar looking domestic cats.
The goal of the project was the development of a wildcat monitoring with camera traps synergetic to the lynx monitoring in the Jura to determine the abundance of the wildcat population.
A Master thesis from 2010 has shown that even wildcat experts have difficulties to distinguish with certainty wildcats and domestic cats on pictures. A phenotypical criteria catalogue will be established for the wildcat in the Swiss Jura with the help of the results from this pilot study.
During the Lynx monitoring in the Jura (60 nights/winter, 50-60 locations each with two camera traps on an area of around 600-700 km²) camera trap locations will be installed in a part of the reference area in a higher density with a focus on wildcats. Each of these wildcat locations will in addition to two white flash camera traps, be equipped with a lure stick. These lure sticks (coarse wooden post) are sprayed with valerian, to attract wildcats. By rubbing against the sticks, wildcats leave hair samples behind. These can be used for later genetic analyses. Wildcats which were identified on camera trap pictures based on their phenotype, provide important information on the distribution of the species and interactions with domestic cats in the study area. For wildcats which were pictured several times and which are individually identifiable, their winter home ranges as well as the density and abundance of the wildcat population were estimated by (spatial) capture-recapture models.
Results and publications
In the course of this project
Optimal parameters (e.g. size and number of locations) for a wildcat reference area within the lynx reference area were identified;
Criteria for the phenotypical identification of wildcats from the Jura by means of camera trap pictures were established;
Methods and criteria for the individual identification of wildcats were established; and
The wildcat’s abundance and density were calculated.
The results were published in the following report:
Maronde L., Zimmermann F., Kunz F., Breitenmoser-Würsten C. & Breitenmoser U. 2020. Identification aid for distinguishing between wild and domestic cats based on photo trap images from the Swiss Jura mountains. KORA Bericht 92. KORA, Muri b. Bern, Schweiz. 17 pp. (german), (french)
The pilot project for the wildcat monitoring is taking place in parallel to the respective deterministic lynx monitoring in the Jura in agreement with the cantons and the local game wardens. The project is financially supported by a private foundation which supports nature conservation subjects.
The return of the European wildcat (Felis silvestris)
In Switzerland, the European wildcat was thought to be practically extinct. However during the last three decades, this native cat species has recolonised its original distribution range in the Jura mountains, and even appears to find habitat beyond that. However, very little is known about the population status of the wildcat despite the obvious current positive trend. This is not only an issue in Switzerland, but there is a general lack of reliable information on the conservation status of European wildcat populations. One of the reasons for this lies in the difficulty of monitoring a secretive, nocturnal species occurring at a low density. Nevertheless, a robust long-term monitoring is mandatory for assessing the status of a population, detecting potentially negative changes in time and reacting with appropriate measures in time.
Here we summarise the most important findings from the project “The return of the European wildcat (Felis silvestris) – Promotion of recolonisation and surveillance of population development in Switzerland”, which ran from 1 July 2017 to 30 June 2020.
Opinions among experts and within the scientific literature differ on whether wildcats and domestic cats can be distinguished purely based on their phenotype (external appearance). In the frame of our pilot project, we have created a criteria catalogue (DE, FR) and have assessed all cat images according to this catalogue. We succeeded with high precision to recognise wildcats and to distinguish them from domestic cats on camera trap images taken with white flash camera traps. Our evaluation was confirmed from genetic samples from hairs that were taken in parallel to the camera trap images. The results matched in almost 100 % of the cases. Additionally, we also succeeded in distinguishing individual wildcats based on their coat patterns. This allows estimating the population density based on capture-recapture models; a method which offers particularly precise estimates. As a result, we have been able to create a foundation in terms of methods for a long-term monitoring of the wildcat in Switzerland.
Distribution and expansion
In the frame of a master thesis, a habitat model was created for the wildcat in order to assess the potential distribution in Switzerland and to better understand its ecological needs. This is the first time a habitat model for the wildcat was created with data from Switzerland. The model showed the availability of suitable habitat for the wildcat on the Central Plateau and in the pre-Alps, and in more areas than suspected. We then performed two camera trap sessions on the Central Plateau in areas with suitable habitat. The research areas were at the Bucheggberg (Solothurn/Bern) and between Yverdon and Eplainges (Vaud). Prior to the camera trap sessions, there was only anecdotal evidence of wildcats at the Bucheggberg, and only few records of wildcats in the Vaud research area. For both areas, we chose a close meshed camera trap grid to maximise capture probability. In both areas, we were able to confirm the presence of several individuals of wildcats. As such, the use of camera traps has proven its value again. It was shown that they are also a suitable tool for a first-time survey in a recently colonised area.
Telemetry in the Seeland
We were able to determine how wildcats use the agricultural landscape and the reed belts of Lake Neuchâtel by following radio-collared individuals. Very little was known about the wildcat’s use of open landscapes. We captured and equipped a total of 10 wildcats with GPS-UHF-collars over a period of two years (2018/2019) to closely observe their movement in this rather atypical habitat. In the determined home ranges, we performed detailed terrain mapping. Analyses showed that wildcats do not only use the forest on the shoreline, but also the reed belt of Lake Neuchâtel and the agricultural landscape, even reproducing there. Further studies are planned to determine whether the agricultural land serves the wildcat as “secondary or alternative habitat” or whether some wildcats actually prefer this habitat, and which plantations and structures are particularly used. This is an important question regarding the further expansion of the species, as it sheds completely new light on the habitat requirements of the wildcat.
Wildcats and domestic cats
Another focus point of this project is the coexistence of wildcats with domestic cats in the densely populated cultural landscape. In this landscape, domestic cats vastly outnumber wildcats. First results from the Seeland show domestic cats and wildcats largely avoiding each other in this landscape spatially, but especially also temporally. These results stem from another master thesis, which also equipped eleven domestic cats with GPS trackers. These observations are particularly relevant for the understanding of hybridisation. There is very little knowledge on the ethological background of the hybridisation between wildcats and domestic cats, especially how and when mating occurs between a wildcat and a domestic cat. It appears that this does not simply happen at random. Otherwise the populations would already be completely mixed. Research in other areas where newly recolonising wildcats encounter “feral” domestic cats should help confirming whether wildcats displace domestic cats.
The European wildcat is a protected species, and this status is emphasised in the relevant international treaties. Despite this, the wildcat finds little attention in the public or with the responsible national authorities. The international networking is an important aspect of the project. The discussion with colleagues from all over Europe showed a demand for a closer cooperation and improved coordination for the conservation of the wildcat. Although many countries do not have reliable data, the spectrum ranges from “rapidly increasing” to “strongly decreasing”.
The project allowed us to significantly contribute to the better documentation and understanding of the development of the wildcat in Switzerland. This resulted in a number of follow-up questions. We will study those in the project continuation “Conservation of the wildcat (Felis silvestris) in Switzerland and Europe”.
The project was financially supported by a private foundation supporting nature conservation, the Temperatio Foundation, and the Lottery funds of the canton of Solothurn.
We have worked with the following partners and institutions:
Centre for Fish and Wildlife Health, ITP University of Bern (PD Dr. Marie-Pierre Ryser-Degiorgis and team)
Cantonal authorities and game wardens
Veterinary practice in the Moos/Ins (Dr. Anna Geissbühler and team)
Stefan Suter (ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences)
Senckenberg Research Institute, Division Conservation Genetics (Dr. Carsten Nowak and team)
Study area: Swiss Jura mountains and areas in Switzerland recently colonised by the wildcat
Contact KORA: Dr. Lea Maronde
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