The European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis) and the fire-bellied toad (Bombina bombina) are listed in Annex II of the EU Habitats Directive, and the smooth snake (Coronella austriaca) in Annex IV. All three species are endangered in their northern distribution limits in Latvia, and are rare across the whole region. Their overall conservation status in the Boreal biogeographic region is assessed as “bad”, with the future prospects also assessed as “bad” for Emys orbicularis and Bombina bombina, and “inadequate” for Coronella austriaca. All three species have legal protection status in Latvia and are included in the list of specially protected species for whom micro-reserves should be established. While there is a lack of Nature 2000 network sites for Emys orbicularis in Latvia, Emys orbicularis and Coronella austriaca are found in several larger Nature 2000 sites; Coronella austriaca is found in the Kemeri national park and Emys orbicularis in the Silene nature park. These two sites have protection plans, but conservation activities for both species were not previously included.
The main aim of the Life-HerpetoLatvia project was to facilitate the enlargement of populations of Emys orbicularis, Coronella austriaca and Bombina bombina, and to ensure their long-time survival in Latvia, by implementing a combination of ‘in-situ’ and ‘ex-situ’ actions and by improving their legal protection. Specific project objectives included the creation of a suitable habitat-corridor network to sustain key populations of the target species; the establishment of a new Natura 2000 network site in south-eastern Latvia (the Daugavpils district) for the main Bombina bombina population in Latvia; and the preparation and approval of a species protection plan for Coronella austriaca.
The Life-HerpetoLatvia project collected extensive field data over two seasons for Bombina bombina in the Demene district, for Emys orbicularis in the Silene nature park and for Coronella austriaca in the Ķemeri national park. Using all available information, the project prepared population management plans for each of these three species, and a species protection plan for Coronella austriaca.
The project established two new Natura 2000 network sites for Bombina bombina: Katriniski (17.6 ha) and Strauti (18.7 ha) in the Demene district. These two sites have micro-reserve status, and competent authorities have confirmed their inclusion in the Natura 2000 network list.
Habitat was improved for the target species, as directed by the management plans, through tree cutting and shrub removal, with the project team restoring a total habitat area of 78.2 ha: 36.3 ha for Bombina bombina, 38.6 ha for Emys orbicularis in Silene nature park, and 3.3 ha for Coronella austriaca in Kemeri National Park. In these areas, the project restored or created 43 ponds; 27 for Bombina bombina, including 14 ponds in the newly-established micro-reserves, and 16 for Emys orbicularis. The habitat improvement work was done to create a more open habitat mosaic, and to establish corridors for animal movement.
The Rare Reptile and Amphibian Breeding Centre was established on land owned by the Latgale Ecological Society. The project fully renovated an existing building. Laboratories were equipped with a new heating system (earth thermal pump), an electric system (with solar power elements), and water filtration and regeneration systems. Six large outdoor basins were created outside the building for raising Emys orbicularis, along with six smaller outdoor basins. The facility was used to breed and raise juveniles for release into restored and newly-created habitat. A total of 4 069 captive-raised Bombina bombina individuals and 42 captive-raised Emys orbicularis individuals were released in restored habitats to reinforce the populations of these species.
The project conducted a range of successful information dissemination and networking activities. These included the presentation of results at two international workshops organised by the project, and presentations at 29 scientific meetings in 11 countries, and the publication of many scientific articles, conference papers and abstracts. The project organised five specialist seminars, two for local landowners and three for conservation authorities; these helped facilitate agreements for conducting habitat management work on privately-owned land. Project representatives attended 18 meetings and events organised by other LIFE projects, produced 32 press releases, 12 TV and 8 radio broadcasts. Three project brochures, dedicated to each target species were published and distributed. The comprehensive project website (www.life-herpetolatvia.biology.lv) will be maintained for at least 10 years after the end of the project. The project produced ten information noticeboards, including four in the popular publically-accessible part of the Rare Reptile and Amphibian Breeding Centre at Latgale Zoo.
The project therefore created core areas for the conservation of the three rarest amphibian and reptile species in Latvia. The main threats for species persistence, namely, the shortage or lack of habitats and insufficient number of individuals for new habitat colonisation, have been removed. All three of the species (European pond turtle, fire-bellied toad and the smooth snake) are extremely rare in Latvia, and are on the northern limit of their species ranges. The project therefore played an important role in implementing the Habitats Directive for these Annex-listed species.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).