Wildlife researchers have hired the services of some unusual helpers: 200 neighbourhood cats equipped with electronic tags.
The animals have been recruited in an attempt to discover how much wildlife destruction is wrought by feline marauders.
Some experts believe Britain’s 9 million cats could be killing more than 150 million birds, mice, rabbits, moles and other creatures every year.
For species such as the house sparrow – whose numbers are dwindling sharply – cat predation could be a serious threat. Others, however, say cats mainly kill sick, weak or old creatures and are not a major problem.
The Reading University project, led by Rebecca Dulieu, a biologist, has been set up to provide answers, using electronic tracking and computer analysis to monitor cat movements in unprecedented detail.
“We know what cats do in our homes – they sleep,” said Dulieu. “But we have virtually no idea of what they get up to outdoors, particularly at night. Now we can find out.”
A typical project recruit is Guinness, an 11-year-old black moggie owned by Robert Davey, an IT engineer.
He has been given a diary to record his cat’s kill record and a plastic bag to store the bodies. These are then analysed by Dulieu.
“We have found our cats are bringing back, on average, 4.8 dead animals a year,” Dulieu said. “Most are mice, but there are also rats, dormice and shrews. Birds make up about a third of the total. One cat even brought back a weasel.”
The kill rate found by Dulieu would therefore suggest that British cats bring back about 40 million creatures a year to their homes. However, previous studies have also indicated that only 30 per cent of dead animals are actually returned to homes.
“The trouble is that we do not have enough reliable data about cats’ outdoor activities, especially at dark. We could be overestimating or underestimating their kill return rate quite significantly,” said Dulieu.
“For the first time, cats will be fitted with data loggers that will show their movements, range and behaviour 24 hours a day.
“We will know when one kills an animal – typically by the way it plays with its prey.”