Cats splash


Ireland’s feral felines

With almost 250,000 wild cats estimated to live in Ireland, a small community of activists is aiming to trap, neuter and release as many as possible in order to give both them and their prey a fighting chance at survival. Joyce Fegan meets Ireland’s cat catchers

Cover Image: Maggie Dwyer of Community Cats Network with a pair of abandoned kittens dropped by a member of the public to the small animal hospital at Riverview Veterinary Clinic at Bandon, Co Cork. Picture: Larry Cummins.

Feral felines: Ireland’s wild cats and the people who trap them

T here are almost a quarter of a million feral cats in Ireland, an issue that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Pre-Covid, animal welfare activists and vets took part in TNR (trap, neuter and return) schemes, but these were greatly reduced due to restrictions and so the prolific breeding of feral cats continued.

A feral cat is a one that has never had any contact with human beings and is also unneutered. A kitten is fertile from about 14-16 weeks of age and a single female can have three litters of about six offspring a year - meaning she can have 20 kittens a year.

According to Cork vet Gavin Russell, feral cats "breed prolifically"; on any given day, he could neuter 20 of them.
Vets say that a single cat can be responsible for 20,000 descendants in her lifetime.

200,000 - the number of feral cats in Ireland

Feral cats 1
 

The ISPCA estimates that there are more than 200,000 feral cats in Ireland, and even more since the pandemic as trapping, neutering and return (TNR) schemes were not running at full capacity.

"I would imagine that there could have been less TNR projects during Covid restrictions so likely less neutering and spaying of feral cats during this period," said a spokeswoman.

Feral cats are not just from large colonies that live outside our eye line but they can easily arise from an unspayed domestic cat who has been abandoned or who strays and then breeds.

"Many cats would have strayed far from home and never found their way back. Others are left behind when their owners are no longer willing to look after them or have moved house. In some cases cats have been dumped, are lost, or sadly their owners have passed away.

"These cats are starving and scavenging in order to survive. Their offspring will be feral, meaning they have not had interaction with humans and are often afraid of us. If they are not spayed or neutered, stray cats and their offspring continue to multiply," explained the ISPCA spokeswoman.

225,000 - the number of domestic cats in Ireland


Rescues and catteries are struggling to cope with the populations.

The ISPCA’s catteries in Longford and Donegal are "usually at full capacity" with a waiting list for more cats and kittens to be admitted.

The spokeswoman said that the ISPCA often struggles to find new owners to adopt the many cats and kittens in their care.

In describing the temperament of a feral cat, the spokeswoman said they are "quite fearful of people" as they have never had contact with humans. Another issue is that a once domesticated cat can turn feral, as they go longer periods of time without human contact.

However, very young feral cats, below about eight weeks of age, can be socialised and even adopted into homes as pets.

A feral cat, once it is neutered, can return to its life in the wild.

Animal welfare activists and vets encourage that people who know of feral cat populations make contact with local TNR schemes to arrange at least the neutering of these animals.

Diseases such as feline AIDS and leukemia spread between feral cats and unneutered males are more likely to fight and spread even more disease.

Some myths abound which affect the neutering of these animals. Some people believe that an unneutered cat is a better hunter than a neutered one - there is no scientific evidence to support this. Other people believe that allowing an animal at least one litter is better for them - again there is no evidence to support this.

Neither relocating, nor euthanising feral cats works as this simply creates a "vacuum effect" and another population of feral cats will take over the area in a matter of time.

Feral cat colonies are to be found all over Ireland, in both rural and urban settings, from farms to industrial estates and from hotels to the back of restaurants.

Some business owners and farmers view their presence as a way to keep the vermin population down, as cats are natural predators.

Cats are known to impact local wildlife. While there is no evidence to suggest that species in our national parks have been affected, this is simply due to a lack of studies carried out into this area. 

Maggie Dwyer
 

Maggie Dwyer of Community Cats Network with a trapped feral cat at the small animal hospital at Riverview Veterinary Clinic at Bandon, Co Cork. Picture: Larry Cummins.

Feral cat - A cat that has never had human contact and is un-neutered

Cork: Maggie Dwyer


Maggie Dwyer traps on average 1,000 feral cats a year in Cork. She runs the Community Cats Network and before that she had been involved in just cat rescue.

"We set up in 2012. Before that we were involved in cat rescue, but when we were doing that we realised there was a big massive feral cat issue. These were not pets that had been abandoned if an owner had died or moved but they were being used to keep the rat and mice population down," says Maggie.

Farmers in Cork have been proactive in helping to address the issue of feral cats, as well as footing the bill that comes with it, she says.

"Nobody wants cats feral on their farm, they just don't have anyone to come out to help them. People think they can't get them neutered because they can't catch them.

"Farmers get an awful lot of stick, but I have farmers who have paid us €2,000 to get their feral cat colonies neutered. They are just so happy to get it done," says Maggie.

"In many cases farmers have been on a farm from a very young age and everything to them is about breeding and producing, neutering does not come into their mind. They are dealing with rats going after calf nuts and any leftover milk from milking and cats help. If a rat even smells cat urine they will run," she adds.

Stray cat - A once domesticated cat, either lost or abandoned

 
 

At one Cork farm she visited lately, there were 53 feral cats in the colony and once they were neutered, wormed and checked for disease, they were returned to the farm.

There are plenty of other locations around Cork where Maggie traps feral cats.

"Cats are very specific - they will go where it is safe for them to sleep and find food. It could be housing estates, businesses, restaurants, hotels and hotels are happy to keep them to keep the rats down.

"We could trap anything from one to 50 odd cats," says Maggie.

Community Cats Network works with the Riverview Veterinary Group that covers Cork.

"The vets give us a discount. So the cats come in, they're in cages, they're given a sedative and a full head and body check, and then either an external or internal operation for neutering. It takes about 20 minutes per cat and the vet heavily subsidises it and we pay about €45 each," explains Maggie.

The cats are then ear tipped and returned to their original environment and the network stays in touch with whoever is feeding them. The ear tipping, which helps to identify a neutered cat, also allows farmers to register them as a working farm animal explains Maggie.

She believes that a lot more education needs to be done in the community about just how fertile cats are and how much disease feral cats can carry.

"From April until October they are in heat, until that hour changes. The majority of the time a feral female will get pregnant - and then they can get pregnant again after 21 days post partum. They can have three litters a year and from 14 weeks on, female kittens are fertile.

"With a dog people will lock them up while they're in heat. You can't do that with a cat," she says.

Illness and population control are the biggest issue she sees.

"The biggest problem is that they are constantly breeding and constantly getting sick and dying, so it's a welfare and control issue," states Maggie.

And while she is trapping upwards of 1,000 feral cats a year in Bandon and Kinsale alone, she knows this is a "national issue".

"In 2019, we trapped 1,136 cats and last year it was 934 but that was because of Covid and we didn't know if we were allowed to work for a time. But this is certainly not just in Cork, this is a national issue. I know of smaller groups trapping and neutering around Ireland," says Maggie.

 
Feral cats 2
 

Feral cats account for almost half of the cat population of Ireland, Picture: Getty Images

Wicklow: Caitriona Leahy


caitriona Leahy is so passionate about trapping, neutering and returning cats to their original environment that she wants her mobile number included in this article. She wants to hear from anyone in Ireland who knows of a feral cat, so they can ring her and she will help to have it trapped and neutered.

"I'm passionate about cats suffering in the wild," says Caitriona.

Based in Aughrim, Co Wicklow, Caitriona has been running her voluntary TNR (trap, neuter, return) scheme since 2010. Her work covers most of the east coast of Ireland, taking in any feral cats found in Wicklow, Carlow and Kilkenny.

"I get calls every day about colonies," says Caitriona.
"They're in industrial estates, behind people's businesses, you could get one in people's back gardens or if a feral cat has a litter in someone's shed," answers Caitriona.

"If someone found a colony of 20 we'd do a blitz - I get calls like that all the time," says Caitriona.

But it does not stop at 20, she recently attended a private home on the east coast where there were in excess of 50 feral cats. The situation was so out of hand that there were even dead kittens in the sitting room of the home.

She says the numbers are staggering.

cat hotel

"A female cat can have three litters in a year and each litter could have six kittens. And when these kittens are three to four months old they're fertile and start breeding. So in one year you could have a massive colony out of one cat," explains Caitriona.

Male cats need to be neutered too.

"It is so important to neuter a male cat as they carry disease and will fight.

"If a person wants to have a healthy cat they need to have it neutered because it will wander a three-mile radius to find females. It's very important to neuter male cats. A tomcat will carry feline AIDS or leukemia if they're not neutered and when they fight they spread the diseases," explains Caitriona.

Caitriona works a lot with farmers, as farms are another common location for feral cat colonies. Some farmers are happy to have cats on their farm in order to keep rats and mice away from their crops, however, they're left feral as there is a belief that a neutered cat will not keep vermin at bay.

"A lot of the time farmers will call me. Farmers will say that the cats will stop hunting if they're neutered. But that's not true - they will actually hunt better because they're not thinking about sex," explains Caitriona.

She also says that some farmers do not care about the issue because they think the feral cats will just die off.
"And they do because they're sick [with feline AIDS or leukemia]," she says.

When Caitriona gets a call about a cat colony, she and a vet go through the full TNR (trap, neuter and return) scheme. The vet part is crucial as it costs money to have a feral cat treated for disease, wormed and neutered.

"I've heard of vets in Dublin charging €150 for neutering - people can't afford it. So they let them have kittens and hand them out and try to find responsible owners, and then those kittens aren't neutered either.

"But some vets are brilliant and will reduce the cost to maybe €60 for a female and €40 for a male," says Caitriona.

stray catch

Domestic cat - A cat that lives with humans as a pet

She works a lot with O'Shea, Bramley & Breen Veterinary Hospital in Wexford, who help her in neutering cats.
"I've a vet in Wexford, he's very compassionate - Richard Bramley.

"We have cat traps and the bait goes in the back of the trap. Then the trap transfers to cages. The cage and trap have a door at each side. It's a special cage and the cat is in a small confined space and the vet gives a jab like an anaesthetic and then neuters them," explains Caitriona.

Like Maggie in Cork, Caitriona and the vet ear tip the cats they catch so they are not caught again. But she doesn’t return them all to the wild.

"I have built a big cattery to tame them, they get used to human contact and then they're rehomed. Cats are very affectionate - once you socialise a feral cat you get as much affection as you would from a domestic cat," says Caitriona.

"No feral cat is born feral; they only become feral because they haven't been handled," she adds.

On Facebook as Aughrim Cat Rescue and TNR, her private group now has 5,000 members with about 50 people joining every week. People from all over Ireland will contact her each week for help.

"We are desperate for help. There is no point in letting cats get out of control, it's crazy, a lot of people just don't know there are voluntary TNR schemes.

"Feral cats are just scared, they're not wild and once neutered they're much happier," she says.

 
Gavin Vet
 

Veterinary surgeon Gavin Russell and staff Sarah Power with a sedated feral cat during a neutering operation at the small animal hospital at Riverview Veterinary Clinic at Bandon, Co Cork. Pic: Larry Cummins.

The vet: Gavin Russell


cIt's Saturday morning and vet Gavin Russell has just come off night duty from his busy practice - the Riverview Veterinary Group, that covers Ballincollig, Kinsale, Carrigaline, Bandon and Clonakilty.

Aside from dealing with wildlife, farms animals and pets, he is also heavily involved in the trapping, neutering and return (TNR) scheme for feral cats in Co Cork. Something which his group heavily subsidises as a "way to give back".

But it is not just a charitable endeavour, it's because feral cats are breeding "prolifically" in Ireland and it's a welfare and control issue too.

"The issue is that there is a huge number of them, and they breed prolifically.

"One cat can give rise to 20 cats in a year and then, as a result, in five years a single female can be responsible for 20,000 descendants.

If you take all their offspring breeding there are about 225,000 feral cats around the Irish countryside, and that includes urban and rural areas," says Gavin.

"These cats start breeding at a very young age, they're sexually mature at about four months," he adds.

He describes feral cats as shy and that they "hide away" as they have had no interaction with humans. He also distinguishes between a stray and a feral cat, as many people confuse the two.

"There is a difference between strays and ferals, strays might have been abandoned but feral cats have been bred in the wild - they can be a flurry of hissing and spitting and biting.

"They don't go looking for human contact, but they are quite formidable, by and large," says the vet.

 

The current issue is the current rates of breeding and how it is constantly increasing. The breeding means that more disease is being transmitted among the feral feline community.

"And cats that are not neutered tend to fight so disease spreads more," explains Gavin.

You can tell feral cats by "yowling" noises they make at night looking for a mate, he says the noise can be "disturbing" for people trying to sleep in urban areas.

But aside from the prolific breeding and the unchecked spread of disease, will nearly a quarter of a million feral cats affect the various local wildlife ecosystems?

"I presume they would have a knock-on effect on the local ecosystem. They're typically feeding on mice, rats and pygmy shrew (very small little creatures with long snouts) but when they're out of balance it's going to affect the food pyramid for other species.

"Overpopulation of one species can cause under population of another," says the vet.

"They're living in the wild, they're living off nature, they're going to feed off local wildlife," he adds.

 
Vet and Maggie

Veterinary surgeon Gavin Russell with staff Sarah Power and Grainne Grainger and (right) Maggie Dwyer of Community Cats Network in the pre-surgery 'prep room' at the small animal hospital at Riverview Veterinary Clinic at Bandon, Co Cork. Pic: Larry Cummins.

 

Overall, his practice is much busier than Covid because of the surge in "companion animal ownership", however, there is also a rise in feral cats.

The amount of feral cats he treats varies depending on the time of year and can range from 20 a month to 10 in one day.

Some issues contributing to the feral colonies include misinformed beliefs about leaving cats unneutered.
"There is a certain belief out there that letting animals have one litter is healthy or that they feel more fulfilled - that's completely anecdotal and I have read no scientific study to back this up," says Gavin.

“There is nothing to support that a feral cat is any better at fending off rodents than an unneutered one," he adds.

In terms of what people can do to help with the problem, the vet suggests that any cat owner should consider "early neutering". This is to stop the "runaway train" of a single cat being responsible for 20,000 cats in her lifetime.

"But the best thing we can do is to make people aware that there is a feral cat population out there and the best way to control it is through neutering in the TNR scheme," says Gavin.

"It would be great if there were some government support as a lot more could be done," he adds.

For more information see riverviewvets.ie

 
Stray cat stock
 

Colony of feral cats on the streets. Picture: iStock.

Cats' effect on wildlife and ecosystems


the effect of feral cats on Irish wildlife is not known, but internationally studies have shown their decimating impact on ecosystems. A study from the Smithsonian Institute found that cats kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds per year in the US.

And another study from the Australian Wildlife Conservancy showed that cats kill between five and 30 animals a day. If you multiply that by the number of feral cats (200,000) and domestic cats (225,000) in Ireland, that's a minimum of 2,125,000 animals a day.

Cats are the primary extinction driver of at least 33 vertebrate species and In Ireland, cats are known to prey on protected species such as the pygmy shrew and the threatened ground-nesting corncrake.

The Department of Housing, which is responsible for our parks and wildlife, says there is no current evidence to suggest an impact in Ireland - because no studies have been done.

"It is documented worldwide that both domestic cats and feral cats can have devastating impacts on indigenous populations of small mammals and birds. There are many scientific articles published on the topic of cats impacting on wildlife," a spokesperson for the department said.

Laying cats

Colony of feral cats resting in the grass. Picture: iStock.

 

But in Ireland there have been no recent studies on feral cat colonies in our protected parks.

"National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS) has not conducted any recent surveys on feral cat numbers and as such cannot comment on whether there has been an increase in cat numbers post Covid. NPWS does not, generally, conduct cat surveys of numbers in the wild, particularly in urban settings.

"At present there is no visual evidence to support such a suggestion in Killarney National Park or Wicklow Mountains National Park, or at any of our other national parks (of which there are six in total," said the spokesperson.

And despite the estimated figure of nearly a quarter of a million feral cats in Ireland, who are still breeding, the department said that they are not considered a threat.

"Feral cats are not currently considered to be a constituent threat to the ecology of Killarney National Park or Wicklow Mountains National Park, as such there is no specific policy in place for them. Ultimately, the issue here is one of personal responsibility in respect of ownership of domestic cats in the first instance," said the spokesperson.

 

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