Plans are being drawn up to return wildcats to the Borders for the first time in decades.
Conservation group Wildcat Haven proposes reintroducing the wildcat, currently confined to the north of the country, to both sides of the Scottish-English border to establish a population here and in Dumfries and Galloway, Cumbria and Northumberland.
Starting initially with Galloway, that proposed population of one of the world’s rarest mammals would then be encouraged to spread west and south into the Borders and beyond.
Paul O’Donoghue, chief scientific adviser at Denbighshire-based Wildcat Haven, said: “The British ecology needs a wildcat in it, and wildcats fit in perfectly, helping to control species like rabbit and actively avoiding conflict with humans.
“The Highlands can’t afford to lose any Scottish wildcats so we’ll be looking to healthy, wild-living European populations and using them to re-establish a British wildcat population on both sides of the Scottish-English border.
“We’ve seen that wildcats can really thrive in man-made forests, and an important part of our research is understanding how we can create a sustainable population in this environment.
“The Galloway-Northumberland border region is often overlooked, but this is one of the most well connected and diverse habitats in the UK and certainly rivals the Highlands for biodiversity potential.”
Survey and research work is already under way in the Galloway Forest.
The plan is being backed by landowners including London-based Gresham House Forestry.
Jason Sinden, its director of forestry, said: “Gresham House manages almost 140,000 acres of forestry assets in the border region.
“These forests are managed to produce a sustainable supply of timber, and this helps to create almost ideal habitats for a range of native woodland specialists such as red squirrels, badgers and roe deer.
“The forests are now being re-colonised by pine martens, and we hope that the habitat can also be suitable for the wildcat, which is such an important component of forest eco-systems.
“We will be working with Wildcat Haven to identify appropriate sites for release and monitoring.”
Dr O’Donoghue added: “Wildcats once lived across the UK.
“Deforestation was the thing that wiped most of them out, but that’s a trend which has reversed considerably over the last century.
“There’s an incredible amount of space from Edinburgh and Glasgow all the way down to Leeds, York and the proposed Northern Forest project, and it’s crying out for the wildlife which lived there in the past.
“The wildcat is the UK’s most endangered animal, and it’s probably the most charismatic and iconic species that has managed to cling on here against all odds.
“They’re incredible survivors, and I have no doubt they will thrive in the forests of the Southern Uplands and Northern England.
“Our British wildcat project is the beginning of a conservation and rewilding mega-project.”
Scotland’s pure wildcat population is estimated to have dwindled to between 35 and 200, but Wildcat Haven hopes to increase that to more than 1,000.
Proposals are also currently being considered for a trial release of a larger wildcat, the Eurasian lynx, just south of the border in Kielder Forest.