Young UK conservationist: 'ground squirrels are great to work with'

Ground squirrel, photo: Bouke ten Cate, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Once a common species in the Czech Republic, the European ground squirrel, also known as the souslik, has become increasingly rare over the past decades. While in the past ground squirrels were exterminated as pests, today conservationists are trying to protect existing colonies and reintroduce them into suitable habitats. I discussed the sousliks with Hannah Findlay, a young British woman based in Moravia who works as a researcher for the Czech NGO Alka Wildlife. I started by asking her what made its numbers dwindle in the first place:

Hannah Findlay,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“It is quite a sad topic to start with, because if you go back to around the 1960´s, you would have seen the ground squirrel in its natural habitat in the wildlife in the Czech Republic.

“But these days, the numbers are dwindling and unfortunately it’s now a critically endangered animal in the Czech Republic.”

Since when have their populations been endangered and what are the main causes that have brought this animal to the brink of extinction?

“The species numbers have been declining from the early 1990s and that´s when their populations were really at a low number. So we can kind of say that around that time is when they were really endangered.

“The reason for this is that in the Czech Republic, the landscape has been changing in the past fifty or so years. Within increasing agricultural practices, the habitat which the ground squirrel likes and thrives in is not as accessible anymore.”

So what kind of habitat does it like?

“Within increasing agricultural practice, the habitat which the ground squirrel likes and thrives in is not as accessible anymore.”

“They are really happy in grassy areas, but also in places like pastures and meadows, where you´ll see animals grazing and where they keep the grass shorter. But you can also see them in more man-made habitats, like golf courses, or grassy airports (these smaller types of airports), and also vineyards.”

Do we know approximately how many colonies there are these days?

“The ground squirrels are a type of rodent. They are similar to a squirrel, but they live in the ground. They dig their own holes and that´s one of the times where you can see them.

“They´re quite small, brownish-orangey, their fur can change colour and they have little ears. The best chance to see them is when they stand up on their hind legs and they´re looking around in the short grass, looking for predators.

“Sometimes they´ll whistle or make this this squeak noise - so you can hear them and see them standing up on their legs. They are adorable I have to admit, a nice animal to be working with.

“They live in colonies, as you say, some very small and some much larger. We have from thirty to forty colonies that we know of here in the Czech Republic. This has fluctuated over the past twenty-five years; there were around eighty-three known colonies back in the 90´s, but this dropped down to around twenty-five to twenty-six in the early 2000.

Ground squirrel,  photo: Bouke ten Cate,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0
“The numbers are slowly increasing again, but they can be strongly affected by different weather conditions and flooding especially. As there aren´t that many of these colonies anymore and they´re not very well connected, this means that they can be really vulnerable.”

Alka Wildlife has been monitoring the wildlife colonies for some time now. How does this mapping take place, what does it look like?

“We have been involved with projects for quite a few years now and one of the ways we map it, is that we actually use information from the general public. So if they have seen a souslik, or what they think is a souslik, we can go to that area and look for their holes.

“What we do is we go around these areas, be it a pasture, a vineyard or an airport and we look on the ground, we look for they´re holes. We look for them, but they get quite scared of us. You know, we might hear them in the distance squeaking, but usually they´ll hide quite quickly.

“But yes, we go around with a GPS and mark these holes. Then we can use that year on year and see the difference in number of holes. What we want to see is more holes appearing in the areas that we´re monitoring, which would indicate that that colony is doing well and that is thriving in that area.”

As you said, you cooperate with owners of vineyards and orchards. In what way can they contribute to protecting the ground squirrel?

“The ground squirrel is vital food for some of our birds of prey and with their dwindling numbers some of our birds of prey are also dwindling.”

“Interestingly, one of the main areas we find sousliks in the Czech Republic now are vineyards. Sometimes, these are personally owned - local people in the area own them and some are bigger wine owners or wine companies. We work with the vineyard owners that we know have sousliks and try and help them supporting the souslik population.

“One of the great ways we do this is by offering this souslik-friendly vineyard trademark (´Sysli na vinici´ in Czech). This is a registered trademark and we give the certificates to wine growers, who manage their vineyards in a souslik-friendly way.

“Firstly, they have to have the sousliks. But most importantly, we ask them not to use any pesticides or rodenticides in their vineyards, so their sousliks aren´t killed in any other way. We also advise them to maintain this nice grassy area in at least fifty percent of their vineyards, that could be any other row. If they do this, we can then award them with the souslik-friendly vineyard trademark.”

What kind of feedback have you received so far from these farmers?

Ground squirrel,  photo: BS Thurner Hof,  Wikimedia Commons,  License Creative Commons 3.0
“Most people are happy to talk with us at least and we´re just happy to help people understand that having the ground squirrels is not necessarily a bad thing. In previous years, where there were healthy numbers in the population, they were even considered as a pest. They are rodents and they can reproduce very well.

“Normally, rodents can keep on reproducing, but the sousliks go to sleep in winter so they actually only reproduce once per year. This means that while numbers increase it´s not all year round. As the population now is so fragile, they don´t have so many cubs per year.”

Similarly to ´Sysli na vinici´, you also carry out another project: ´Sysli v sadu´, which is a similar corporation, but with orchards.

“Yes, when we started ´Sysli na vinici´, we realised that they weren´t just in the vineyards. In this area of south Moravia with lots of vineyards, we also have orchards. It was kind of just natural progression and seemed like the right thing to do.

“We currently have one orchard owner under ´Sysli v sadu´, but we are happy to hear from anybody who has orchards and grows fruits, if they´ve seen sousliks in their area.”

What is the importance of a ground squirrel? Why should we protect it?

“Interestingly, one of the main areas we find sousliks in the Czech Republic now are vineyards.”

“The Ground Squirrel is vital food for some of our birds of prey and with their dwindling numbers some of our birds of prey are also dwindling. The Saker Falcon for example, is also an endangered animal in the Czech Republic. And one of the reasons is, it doesn´t have enough prey, it doesn´t have enough food and one of its main sources are these ground squirrels.

“Also, we believe that the ground squirrels can help with the drainage where they´re living because they dig these extensive burrows and they´re interconnected, allowing the water to run into the ground, rather than running off the ground.”

Finally, how can common people contribute to the protection of ground squirrels? What can we do?

Ground squirrel,  photo: Barbora Kvapilová / Czech Radio
“As we mentioned, if you see or think you see a ground squirrel hole or even hear one, please let us know. We are happy to hear from you, just have a conversation or give you more information.

“As a part of one of our previous projects, we set up a ground squirrel website linked to this trade mark that we have with the vineyards, where we have lots more information about the ground squirrels.

“You can also drink wine with the trademark we´ve given to these wine growers and they have it on their bottles of wine. So you get to enjoy local Czech wine, and support the ground squirrels at the same time - the money goes directly back into helping them.”