Williams Foley N
(2022). Spatial and Social Dimensions of European Wildcat Felis silvestris Conservation.
Spatial and Social Dimensions of European Wildcat Felis silvestris Conservation
In response to global declines in biodiversity, increasing numbers of conservation projects are attempting significant interventions, such as species reintroductions and population reinforcements. Such actions require in-depth knowledge of the ecological and social contexts in which they are to be applied. Abstract
In this thesis, I use both natural and social science approaches to inform European wildcat Felis silvestris conservation in Scotland, and potential future reintroductions to England and Wales. I address key gaps in the existing domestic cat literature, particularly in relation to spatial ecology, and contribute knowledge of the social dimensions of conservation that can be applied to broader conservation policy and practices.
I first build landscape-scale simulations to assess variation in the relative exposure of areas of conservation interest to domestic cat Felis catus activity. By projecting cat tracking data onto human residences, I model domestic cat exposure risk in legacy Wildcat Priority Areas, a proposed wildcat reinforcement site in the Cairngorms, three categories of protected area across Great Britain, and 'unprotected’ sites to enable comparisons.
Landscapes showed distinctive configurations in the distribution of cat activity, patterns which were driven by both the extent and dispersion of human settlement, and by the population demographics and simulated ranging behaviour of domestic cats. The site in the Cairngorms was found to exhibit the lowest estimates of exposure across all simulated metrics, and so may be relatively well-suited to wildcat population reinforcement. In terms of broader protected areas, National Nature Reserves exhibited low estimates of exposure to cat activity, while Special Areas of Conservation generally fared no better in terms of exposure than ‘unprotected’ baseline sites. This work uses a novel technique to assess and evaluate the influence of owned domestic cats across landscapes important to conservation.
Next, I address key gaps in the understanding of domestic cat spatial ecology by conducting a GPS tracking study in an area of wildcat conservation interest in northern Scotland. By combining detailed GPS information with fine-scale habitat maps, I provide information on the roaming habits of rural owned domestic cats: sex-specific differences in behaviour were apparent, with males exhibiting larger home ranges. I found a minority of wide-ranging individuals embarking on long forays. In terms of habitat selection, females used farmyards more than expected, and males used low vegetation more than expected. This work characterises cat roaming in rural areas and identifies habitats in which the likelihood of cat-wildcat contact is relatively high.
Taking a turn in approach, I then use in-depth interviews and grounded theory to characterise how key stakeholders value European wildcats and their conservation. I found that stakeholders value wildcats in seven principal ways: value in place, particularly in ‘wild’ landscapes, historical and cultural values in Scotland, charismatic value, symbolic value, socioeconomic values and costs, value to conservation of species or ecosystems, and intrinsic values afforded to both individuals and species. This work identifies how different values afforded to wildcats can influence decision-making in current and future wildcat conservation. efforts, and also provides a framework for understanding stakeholder values in other single-species conservation contexts.
Next, I address the challenges to conservation policy and practice presented by hybridisation, using the European wildcat as a case study. At a crucial point in wildcat conservation, I interview key stakeholders to understand their conceptualisations of wildcats. I found participants used behavioural, morphological, genetic and functional concepts. I explore and explain these ideas to provide insights on how stakeholders make delineations, before discussing the implications of these concepts for broader management of anthropogenic hybridisation of species and subjects of conservation interest.
Finally, I conclude by evaluating the contributions this thesis makes to broader knowledge. I have been able to combine analyses of both spatial and social approaches to generate insight into the complexities of human influence in species conservation. Wildcat conservation in Scotland is an excellent example of how combining spatial and social dimensions can aid the development of conservation science, policy and practice.