Wildcats could return to Devon if plans to reintroduce the species go ahead, more than a century after they were last seen in the South West.

The University of Exeter has launched a survey to gauge public opinion on the possible reintroduction of wildcats in the South West, including Devon and Cornwall.

The survey, which ends on May 23, is part of an 18-month long feasibility study being funded by the South West Wildcat Project (SWWP) on potentially suitable areas to reintroduce the species in England and Wales.

According to experts, the South West was one of the last wildcat strongholds outside Scotland, and there is evidence a small population survived in Exmoor until about a century ago.

The European wildcat (felis silvestris) is the only wild feline species remaining in Britain, with some 200 individuals left in the Scottish Highlands, where they have been a protected species since 1981.

Wildcats disappeared from the rest of Great Britain more than a century ago due to habitat loss and hunting.

Larger and stockier than a domestic cat, the wildcat has thick fur and can grow to about 56 cm in length. They feed mostly on rabbits and ground nesting birds.

Although no reintroduction is planned at this stage, between 30 and 40 wildcat kittens could be introduced in Devon and Cornwall, initially in coastal scrubland and dense forests before spreading to the rest of the country.

Members of the public were quick to comment on the Devon Wildlife Trust’s Facebook page after the charity announced details of the survey this week.

Steve Brook suggested landowners “heavily invested in shooting” could be opposed to the idea as wildcats would hunt pheasants and partridges, while pointing at the damage caused to other forms of wildlife by domestic cats.

Another person commented that Scotland was having problems keeping pure strains of the species while Valerie Shapley said only people who make a living from the land “should be asked about this subject”.

Gill Lyon was however more positive about the idea, saying she would “love” to see the species reintroduced in Devon. However, she claimed the predator would be illegally persecuted by “the landed gentry”, adding that legislation “hasn’t stopped the toffs from hunting foxes with dogs”.

Wildlife expert Derek Gow, who is also keen to see the reintroduction of wolves across the country, focused on the benefits of having the apex predator back in the county.

“Wildcats are better at free living in Exmoor, and it’s replicated in Wales, where you don’t find domestic cats,” he said in response to fears the species would breed with their domestic cousins. “I’ve spoken to European experts and hybridisation is about 11 per cent for many species, anyway,” he told this paper.

He said small mammals were more likely to become prey for wildcats than game birds, noting that the reason domestic cats hunt such large quantities of bird species is because they are in “high density populations” around towns and cities.