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: