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Auf wiedersehen Deutschland!

We loved Germany. Apart from the friendly people and the amazing landscapes, Germany felt like an incredibly positive wildcat country. Everything that is negative for wildcats in Scotland (all those factors of population history and habitat that have ‘driven’ hybridisation in Scotland) have been positive in Germany for a long time with the unsurprising result that hybridisation is minimal and the wildcat population is healthy and expanding. Huge thanks to all of the researchers and ecologists who met with us during our travels, welcomed us so warmly and answered my (many) questions with such enthusiasm. Here’s a goodbye montage of some German wildcat moments, and then its on to Switzerland …..

Wildkatzendorf Hütscheroda

I will replicate this on every wall of my own house.

Last week we spent three amazing days with Thomas Mölich from BUND (Friends Of The Earth Germany) in Hainich National Park in Thuringia. I haven’ t been able to update the blog for a while as our WiFi access has been patchy, but here are some videos for now of the captive German wildcats in the wildcat village (Wildkatzendorf Hütscheroda).

One of the four captive male wildcats in the wildcat village (Wildkatzendorf Hutscheroda) at feeding time.
A second captive male wildcat from Germany, note the ‘washed out’ flank coloration and striping and the very strong black dorsal line, nape and shoulder stripes and tail bands, apparently much more typical in the German populations.

Thomas spent a few days showing us around Hainich National Park where he has worked with wildcats for 20 years. Hainich is 75km2 of beech forest, and the ancient beech forest in the central area is a UNESCO world heritage site. The forest is thought to be home to between 40-60 wildcats and it comprises fantastic wildcat habitat (see photos below) but it is quite isolated from the surrounding forest areas by relatively large areas of agricultural land.

The view from the top of the treetop walk. You can see the edge of the forest is bordered by quite an expanse of flat agricultural land before reaching the Thuringian Forest in the distance.

Safety net for the wildcat

Thomas was the project leader for the BUND pilot project ‘Safety net for the wildcat’, which planned to join fragmented and isolated forest patches using green wildlife corridors. The first of these corridors was planted in Hainich in 2007 by many BUND volunteers, and eventually (after two phases) successfully connected Hainich National park with the Thuringian Forest 20km away. A wildcat routing map was then developed to identify suitable locations for wildcat corridors all over the country, and the project has since been expanded. The full details and history of the project can be found in this leaflet, which provides far better information than I will be able to:

https://constantine.typepad.com/files/20000-kilometers-of-migration-corridors.pdf

The first corridor

The lure-stick method for wildcat survey

On Friday last week we travelled from the Eifel region to Bonn to visit Katharina Steyer and Annika Tiesmeyer at Bundesamt fur Naturschutz (Bfn – the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation). Katharina and Annika are wildcat experts specialising in genetic analysis and large-scale population surveys. They talked us through the history of ‘lure-stick’ sampling in Germany and the analysis of their huge dataset, and the conclusions from their studies regarding the level of hybridisation in wildcat populations. Our many thanks to them (as always!) for being such welcoming and informative hosts, and their publications are all available online (Google names plus ‘wildcats’!).

A german wildcat. I took this photo. This was a very good day 🙂 he is beautiful

Lure-sticks

Katharina adapted a method of using valerian to attract wildcats to ‘lure-sticks’ to be able to collect hair samples in a standardised way, to allow efficient survey and monitoring of large areas. Her paper can be read here

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257496811_Hair_trapping_with_valerian-treated_lure_sticks_as_a_tool_for_genetic_wildcat_monitoring_in_low-density_habitats

This method has since been used all over Germany with great success. Volunteers, researchers, ecologists, school children and many others have used this method to follow up sightings of wildcats and to survey new areas to test for presence (and absence). A national project known as ‘Wildcat Leap’ involved ten federal states and 500 volunteers, and comprised the biggest ever standardised lure-stick project. The data was used to evaluate genetic structure of the population, distribution, and to allow effective conservation planning (for example, the location of ‘green corridors’ to improve habitat connectivity). They received 5,000 hair samples, 60% of which were wildcat, with a total of 700-800 individual wildcats being detected in project areas across the country.

Video of the method

Hybridisation

The huge dataset allowed researchers to conclude that there was a nationally low rate of hybridisation across Germany of 3-4% (for comparison, the hybridisation rate in Scotland is 100%). Previous estimates that had reported higher values (a publication from 2009) were due to an underlying sub-structure in the wildcat population, and not to hybridisation. This became apparent with the very large sample size, and allowed researchers to identify two genetically distinct wildcat populations: one (larger) population in the southwest (bordering France and Luxembourg), and a second in central Germany. These populations have probably been separate since the last ice-age, when wildcat populations recolonised areas across Europe from refuges in the Mediterranean (although they are now mixing in Germany as the two populations grow and expand).

Lure-sticks for Scotland?

The lure-stick method has been used successfully in other countries (including Romania, France, Luxembourg, and Switzerland), although it did not work so well in some Mediterranean areas, such as Sicily (possibly because of the climate). From our researches in Scotland over the past 4 years, we now know that Scottish ‘wildcats’ do show a valerian response, so we would like to test the lure-stick method properly in Scotland, following the precise methodology (including the same valerian) as in Germany. This could be used to perform larger surveys and more consistent, long-term monitoring (with greater efficiency and lower cost) and enable us to collect a far larger genetic dataset than we have at present.

One of my hybrid Scottish cats loving the valerian pouch attached to this post

An eye-full (of wildcats) in Eifel

Eifel National Park is 110 km2 of protected deciduous/mixed forest habitat in western Germany (North Rhine-Westphalia) on the border with Belgium. In 2004-05, a camera-trap study for wildcats detected a population of around 50 animals (the population has since expanded and is now known to be much larger, and is contiguous with other populations across western/central Germany). The park now celebrates its wildcats, in a way that made Alice and I very, very happy:

The best kind of welcome, to anywhere.
One of the camera trap stations from the 2004 study, taken from an information display in the visitor centre.
The best fridge magnet i have EVER seen
Winston the wildcat: we coloured in his pelage to make him a proper (accurate) European Wildcat
The national park is a protected area for habitat and wildlife. Small-scale agricultural land-use occurs only in the buffer zone around the outside. Very few settlements are visible, and when they occur, they are clumped (i.e. everyone lives in a village together; the houses are not distributed all over the landscape).

Wiesbaden and the Taunus Mountain range

The week after Frankfurt was technically a ‘week-off’ from the Churchill Fellowship, due to the length of the funding (3 weeks for this leg) and the availability of the people I wanted to meet with (some only at the start of June, others only at the end …). So we took the opportunity to explore wildcat habitats outwith the locations of my meetings, and to see and experience as much of Germany as possible (including the thermal spas, more about this below).

My brief time in Freiburg, and the train journey north to Frankfurt, had already begun to confirm some of my suspicions about size and scale of potential ‘wildcat habitat’ in southern and central Germany (where wildcats are found). The quality and quantity of forest habitat has become a recurring theme for Alice and I, both in the discussions we have with local experts, and in the endless discussions between ourselves!

Quality and quantity of forest habitat

The photos below are from the Taunus Mountain region, just north of Frankfurt. The area we visited was just outside Wiesbaden, and is described as a ‘Nature Park’ (which is like a woodland used in part for leisure/recreation, not the same as a ‘National Park’). Within minutes, you are submerged in a dense deciduous forest with oak, beech, alder, and sycamore (to name but a few), mixed with mature thinned spruce (some of which was being harvested). The woodland structure is diverse in terms of species maturity, density, size and under-storey.

Alice surveying the forest
Grassy meadows in the centre of open woodland are the perfect place for small mammals to thrive …

The profusion of prey

Another fundamental wildcat requirement is a diverse and abundant prey base. While walking in the Taunus park, we were stunned by the profusion of small mammals living in the woodland. I have never walked through a woodland in Scotland and watched voles frolicking in the sun, but in Germany this has happened in every woodland habitat we have visited so far. At one point, we could see ten voles sitting on the bank in front of us. We could hear mice running through the leaf litter. We watched families of passerine birds moving across the forest floor. None of these fast little fellows are particularly easy to photograph, but I did manage a quick video of one of the voles (blink and you will miss him).

One of many, many voles living in the forest floor. This one was filmed in Eifel National Park.

And finally . . . a spa interlude (inter-nude)

This cartoon sums it up. It did help improve my lower back pain.

Girls on tour

I am a bit behind on these blogs as our WiFi access became tricky after leaving Frankfurt, so I’m going to post a lot of updates today (just in case anyone is still reading them), and beginning with the leaving of Frankfurt, which is important because it involves the addition of a significant team member: Agnes the Mokka (pictured below).

The lady at Avis car rentals took pity on us almost immediately, and having labelled us ‘Girls on Tour’, proceeded to give us a free upgrade to a larger vehicle. This announcement was not greeted with the joy and enthusiasm she was expecting, however, because this ‘car rental from Frankfurt city centre and driving out of it and not hitting anything or dying for 2 weeks’ challenge just became even more challenging with the thought of more car to manoeuvre. Challenge 1 was actually finding the car, hidden deep within a multi-storey car park in the old town of central Frankfurt. This task achieved, we assessed the size and makeup of the beast:

The car was larger than expected, I recall it as being at least twice my height

Opposites-land

Challenge 2: get into the car on the right (correct) side of the car. As follows:

A schematic showing the inside frontal area of the car. As you can see, everything is not where it is supposed to be.

Thankfully, the left and right arms were both up for the challenge, and we practiced their reversed roles on a few laps of the multi-storey, until the stares from local car-parkers became too embarrassing.

Challenge 3: the wrong side of the road

Upon exiting the car park, one must battle every animal instinct and proceed to the wrong side of the road. Unfortunately, we also went in the wrong direction, so one must then proceed to also turn around on the wrong sides of the road.

Madness

Challenge (5?) can’t remember there have been so many …

Navigation. Get the heck out of Frankfurt old town and its many many obstacles, including people on foot, people on bikes, and people in cars. Thankfully, I had Alice in the passenger seat desperately interpreting the rambling of two smart phones, and we made it out alive.

Navigate THIS! We have to get back IN there again soon …

Needless to say, the successful arrival at our next destination an hour out of town was met with much celebrating, congratulating and back-patting. What an achievement. Well done to all! (And in case you are interested, we visited a UNESCO world heritage site where they found loads of fossils, particularly those showing horse evolution, called Grube Messel. The tour was in German but we understood bits of it (except the part about a volcanic eruption there in 1977, which seemed unbelievable, and then we later found out was unbelievable as they actually said it was millions of years ago).

The Messel pit, very interesting. An old lake (Eocene) formed after a volcanic eruption and the sediments were then quarried as ‘oil shale’, and they are full of fossils, including fish, frogs, mammals (including primates) and a little pre-horse.

Wildcat genetics

My second meeting of the trip was with Carsten Nowack at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Gelnhausen, just outside Frankfurt. Carsten is a conservation geneticist who has analysed many wildcat samples from Germany and elsewhere in mainland Europe. Carsten was an extremely friendly and welcoming host, who has always been interested in the causes of hybridisation. The challenge of studying hybridisation in Germany is that there are too few hybrids! Carsten was surprised to hear that the level of hybridisation in Scotland is so extreme that all ‘wildcats’ are hybrids, and as such the definition and identification of wildcats in Scotland is extremely challenging, as is the characterisation of ‘hybrids’.

A taxidermy European wildcat (hunting a vole) from the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt.

Carsten explained that the wildcat has been recovering and recolonising areas in Germany for many years, potentially since before legal protection in 1933. There are two genetically distinct populations in Germany: one in Central Germany (Harz Mountains, Thuringia areas), thought to perhaps have originated from Eastern wildcat populations, and a larger population (covering an area including southwestern/western Germany, Luxembourg, and northeastern France). These are regions with large contiguous areas of deciduous or mixed woodland, although wildcats are increasingly being found in the more open habitats in between. Despite evidence of occasional instances of recent hybridisation between wildcats and domestic cats, these events appear relatively rare and have not led to widespread introgression (repeated/continuous hybridisation events). There are reportedly no human-wildcat conflicts in Germany, and wildcat populations have not been subjected to hunting or persecution for almost a century.

Frankfurters

Frankfurt was the second destination of the trip, primarily as a base for exploring the surrounding area, and for my meeting with conservation geneticist, Carsten Nowack (Senckenberg Research Institute). Frankfurt was extremely hot, extremely busy, and extremely fun. Alice Bacon (wildcat tour companion) arrived a few days into my stay, and we began by sampling all the local delicacies:

Giant wieners

Green sauce day

Alice also arrived in time for ‘Green sauce day’, which turned out to be a very fun festival where all the foods are served with something called green sauce. It is a sauce, that is green. It came with a bratwurst and some bread. And some beers. And some entertainment – great times were had by all.

The view south from Frankfurt centre looking over the Main river. The bridge was covered in padlocks. Mine would have said: ‘Keri loves wildcats 4 EVER June 2019’
View from the top of the Kaiser Dom (cathedral). I had to walk up a tiny dark twisty staircase of 328 steps to get this photo, and I am almost certain that it wasn’t worth it. The combination of heat, dark, steps, and walking up steps almost resulted in vomit.

Wildcats of Baden-Wurttemberg

Baden-Wurttemberg is a state in the south west of Germany, bordering with Switzerland in the south and France in the west, with the neighbouring German state of Bavaria to the east. Yesterday I had my first meeting of the trip, with Sabrina Streif of ForstBW (in English, the Forestry Research and Research Institute Baden-Wurttemberg), where she works in Wildlife Ecology (and is also completing a PhD in wildcat ecology). Sabrina has been researching the wildcats in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg for many years, including conducting population surveys with lure sticks, collecting and analysing road-kill samples, and radio-collaring individual cats to investigate spatial behaviour and habitat use. She was an exceptionally welcoming, friendly and helpful host, and I can’t thank her enough. And she answered ALL of my research questions (and there are a LOT) and provided me with so much information and material that I had to go back to the hotel and spend three hours writing everything down (and I was also taking notes as we talked). Sabrina showed me videos and photos of the cats and their trapping methods, and then took me out to see the habitat, very close to Freiburg, where the wildcats live. I will just mention a few interesting points below:

Two wildcats from Sabrina’s study population, both died recently on the roads. The stuffed animal is from several years ago, and it is darker than Sabrina normally expects from her local wildcats (the striping on the side is quite visible). The second one died this year, and was very pale (for me, much paler than Scottish wildcats!). Sabrina said this is what they expect the German cats more to look like – ‘washed-out’ striping, NOT ‘tabby’ markings, which they associate more with domestic cats.

The biggest threats

The biggest threat to wildcats in Germany may be habitat fragmentation. Fragmentation can increase the risks of road mortality (because wildcats must cross more roads to get to smaller fragments of habitat) and it could also increase the risks of hybridisation with domestic cats. Sabrina described fragmentation and road mortality as the main threat to her wildcats, and when she showed me the recent freezer samples, I could see why.

Wildcats found dead on the road, all from this year. The cats will be postmortem’d and samples sent for disease screening and genetic analysis. The wildcats are then stuffed and used for education in museums and schools. At Scottish Wildcat Action, we don’t get anything like this number of cats in such a short space of time (and certainly not this many wildcats!). Interestingly, their peak periods for roadkill are November and February times, which tie in with breeding and dispersal, and are similar to what we see in Scotland.

Habitat

Habitat is undoubtedly going to be one of the crucial factors in either preventing or promoting hybridisation. The level of hybridisation in the Baden-Wurttemberg wildcats is relatively very low – around 4% – even though they are a recolonising population (they were extinct in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg from hunting/persecution in 1912, and have since recolonised from other areas). So what does the habitat look like, and how do the wildcats use it? Luckily, Sabrina was kind enough to drive me out to her study site, and since she has radio collared many individuals, their spatial behaviour within this habitat is known.

A view over the wildcat habitat near Freiburg, with the vineyeards in the front, a small hamlet, and the Black Forest in the distance. The forest patches are large and highly structured – they are virtually impenetrable to people. The agricultural ground is also highly structured and diverse, with lots of cover (plenty of trees, wildflower verges, shrubs and hedgerows) and very likely plenty of prey. Most are growing maize.
Floodplain forests next to the river Rhein. This dense patch of forest was home to 7 female wildcats, and regularly used by two males (all collared by Sabrina and her colleagues). The forest is so dense and highly structured that you can’t easily walk through it – Sabrina and her team could rarely track the animals to den sites because the signal would bounce, and because the dens were so hard to find in all this vegetation!

The wildcats here seem to live at a very high density, with relatively small home ranges compared to other populations, suggesting that this is very good wildcat habitat that can support many individuals. When I asked Sabrina if this was ‘optimal’ wildcat habitat, she gave me a very good answer: it is optimal for the individuals, but not for the population, because it is quite fragmented and has such high risks from roads. The wildcats here stay very much inside the forests, rarely venturing out into open habitat (especially the females). They did not venture into human settlements at all, and were only recorded near to human settlement when that settlement happened to be very close to the forest (so the people get close to the forest, the wildcats do not get close to the people). So despite all the structured, diverse open habitats, the wildcats in this area of Baden-Wurttemberg mostly stay in their forests, and in doing so, may rarely come into direct contact with feral cats. But we don’t know that for sure, because we have not radio-tracked the feral cats, so it remains a hypothesis.

Finally

Huge thanks to my host Sabrina for sharing all of this information with me. Here is an example of some not-so-good taxidermy of a German wildcats 🙂

I found it very interesting that apparently German wildcats were often stuffed with dead birds in their mouths, rather than the Scottish way, which is to make them snarling.

Frying in Freiburg

If living in the north of Scotland has taught me anything its never leave the house without an assortment of jackets (one for cold, one for rain, one for both). Although we do have sunny warm weather on occasion, it has been unseasonably chilly and wet at home recently, even for the north of Scotland. I have become so accustomed to expecting cold/drizzle that I didn’t even bother to check the weather in Freiburg before leaving home, so I packed the waterproofs and down-jacket as per usual. This may have been an oversight. Despite reading Lonely Planet’s description of Freiburg as ‘Germany’s warmest city’ ((before leaving home), I am still slightly surprised by how hot it is here. Its going to be 32 degrees in Freiburg tomorrow. Fortunately, every other shop is an ice-cream cafe. Its a beautiful place, with little picturesque cobblestone streets (although those cobblestones are less picturesque when lugging a wheelie bag full of jackets). It is in the south-west of Germany, near the border with France and Switzerland, and it is a popular destination for visitors to the Black Forest. And of course the forests are what interest me, because they contain wildcats. I’ll be meeting with my first expert of the trip tomorrow, and I have my long list of interview questions ready to go … then the Felis silves-trip can really begin!

Munsterplatz