LIFE Project Cover Photo

Conservation of the European Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus citellus) at the northwestern border of its range

Reference: LIFE19 NAT/SK/001069 | Acronym: LIFE SYSEL



The European ground squirrel (Spermophilus citellus) is a ground dwelling rodent, endemic to central and southeast Europe, listed Annex II and Annex IV of the Habitats Directive, and living in grassland habitats. It has already disappeared from many areas of its former distribution, especially at the western edge of its range. The situation in all three countries engaged in the project is critical, with the overall conservation status considered unfavourable-bad. From being a common species covering large area, the squirrels numbers have dropped drastically and continue to decline. The project focuses on habitats in its northwestern distribution range to prevent further decline and the shrinking of its area.

The main threat to the species is a loss of suitable habitats through a lack of grassland management, such as low intensity grazing and mowing, land abandonment and inappropriate practices, such as monoculture planting, absence of crop rotation, over-fertilisation by manure, use of chemicals and conversion of grasslands to arable land. Furthermore, urbanisation and road development are causing fragmenting and degrading habitats, reducing their connectivity and thus lowering genetic exchange and fecundity.

Heavily fragmented and small isolated populations are exposed to a high risk of mortality by increased predation, lack of food supply, parasites and diseases, heavy rains and the flooding of burrows. Trapping, poisoning and poaching also occurs.

In 2019 the target species was found at 42 locations in Slovakia, 42 in the Czech Republic and three in Poland, but many of them are man-made habitats, such airports or golf courses, and are not Natura 2000 sites. The project focuses on only Natura 2000 sites designated for the ground squirrel and SCIs where it still occurs. Previous LIFE project that have supported the European ground squirrel have mostly targeted other species and habitats. Restitutions and translocations have been the most common conservation actions.


The overall goal of the LIFE SYSEL project is to improve the conservation status of European ground squirrel within the project area, halting its population decline and the shrinking of its habitat on the northwestern border of its range. The project will thus contribute to the EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy, the Birds and Habitats Directives, and the Common Agricultural Policy.

Specifically, the project aims to:

  • Carry out favourable grassland management of habitats with ground squirrel occurrence, where such management is missing or is inadequate;
  • Restore ground squirrel habitats, especially those adjacent to existing locations or those for release;
  • Strengthen the populations and ensure population growth by increasing food supply, decreasingpredation pressure and taking daily care of individuals at project localities;
  • Support populations by translocation of animals and the release of the squirrel into SCIs where it has become extinct in recent years;
  • Gather relevant data on target species, especially its genetic structure;
  • Create conditions for reaching a favourable status for grasslands and ensuring their long-term sustainable management in cooperation with local stakeholders;
  • Spread the knowledge, know-how and replicate results of the project in different areas, regions and EU countries where the ground squirrel occurs; and
  • Increase the awareness of stakeholders and the general public on the target species, conservation measures and their importance.


    Expected results:

  • Increase of the overall population in Slovakia by at least 100% and in Poland by 50% (an increase from 50 to 300% in individual project sites and colonies);
  • 207 hectares of suitable grassland habitats restored and managed in 12 SCIs 185 ha in Slovakia and 22 ha in Poland;
  • 10 new and vital colonies established in Slovakia by restitution;
  • 21 replications 10 of suitable management practices or strengthening local populations (five in SK, five in CZ), five of squirrel colonies restitutions, five of monitoring and research, a zoo exhibition and captive breeding;
  • 10 localities with improved food supply areas of flower meadows, clover, alfalfa, oats seeded, 700 fruit trees planted and breeding habitats forinsects created;
  • At least 50 small-scale measures taken to reduce the predation pressure at 10 localities, such as boxes for birds and small mammals installed, small wetlands created, piles of woods and stones installed;
  • 18 ha of land purchased and 47 ha leased long term;
  • Completion of genetic database and complex genetic study of the target species;
  • 24 information panels installed and an info trail with seven additional panels and 20 notice boards erected;
  • Eco-labelling and branding scheme for local products created; and
  • A long-running film, an interactive educational exhibition at ZOO, four exhibitions of species, an educational programme for schools, manuals, workshops, excursions and media appearances.

    Reference: LIFE19 NAT/SK/001069
    Acronym: LIFE SYSEL
    Start Date: 01/09/2020
    End Date: 31/12/2027
    Total Budget: 5,428,988 €
    EU Contribution: 3,257,391 €
    Project Location:


    Coordinating Beneficiary: Regional Association for Nature Conservation and Sustainable Development
    Legal Status: PNC
    Address: Na Rivire 7/A, 84104, Bratislava, Slovakia Slovensko
    Contact Person: Katarína Tuhárska
    Tel: 421915767762

    LIFE Project Map



    • Mammals
    • Grasslands
    • High Nature Value farmland


    • grassland ecosystem
    • monitoring
    • population dynamics
    • endemic species


    • Directive 79/409 - Conservation of wild birds (02.04.1979)
    • COM(2011) 244 final “Our life insurance, our natural capital: an EU biodiversity strategy to 2020” (03.05.2011)
    • Directive 92/43 - Conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora- Habitats Directive (21.05.1992)


    • Spermophilus citellus


    Type Code Name
    SCI PLH020003 Dolina Łachy (DEPRECATED)
    SCI PLH160003 Kamień Śląski (DEPRECATED)
    SCI SKUEV0030 Horešské lúky (DEPRECATED)
    SCI SKUEV0065 Marcelovské piesky (DEPRECATED)
    SCI SKUEV0066 Kamenínske slaniská (DEPRECATED)
    SCI SKUEV0172 Bežnisko (DEPRECATED)
    SCI SKUEV0183 Veľkolélsky ostrov (DEPRECATED)
    SCI SKUEV0201 Gavurky (DEPRECATED)
    SCI SKUEV0225 Muránska planina (DEPRECATED)
    SCI SKUEV0282 Tisovský kras (DEPRECATED)
    SCI SKUEV0345 Kečovské škrapy (DEPRECATED)
    SCI SKUEV0355 Fabiánka (DEPRECATED)
    SCI SKUEV0356 Horný vrch (DEPRECATED)
    SCI SKUEV0358 Soví hrad (DEPRECATED)
    SCI SKUEV0360 Beležír (DEPRECATED)
    SCI SKUEV0361 Vodokáš (DEPRECATED)
    SCI SKUEV0593 Sokolec (DEPRECATED)
    SCI SKUEV0708 Primovské skaly (DEPRECATED)
    SCI SKUEV0784 Mašianské sysľovisko (DEPRECATED)


    Name Type
    ALKA Wildlife o.p.s. Slovakia Participant
    State Nature Conservancy of the Slovak Republic Participant
    Polskie Towarzystwo Ochrony Przyrody “Salamandra” Slovakia Participant
    Comenius University in Bratislava-Faculty of Natural Sciences Slovakia Participant