November was dedicated to sousliks
November saw bushes being cut, trees being planted, data analysed and a conference was held. We were very lucky to have many volunteers helping out with these activities so to everyone involved, we thank you!
The European ground squirrel is one of our most endangered mammals, mainly due changes in the natural landscape of the Czech Republic like the intensification of agriculture. Now, a species which was widespread across the Czech Republic, is limited to several hundred hectares of land such as grassy airports, campsites and golf course. If they were to venture into agricultural landscape they would be faced with a lack of food, space and safety and they would have to cope with agricultural practicies such as spraying of insecticides and the use of pesticides.
In November 2019, the efforts of two years of research was presented at a conference in South Moravia, whilst the ground squirrels were hibernating, deep underground. We presented our research on ground squirrels in the vineyards and orchards of South Moravia, as little is known on this topic. The autumn also allowed us to take a break from monitoring and implement vital habitat modifications.
The first action taken: Fruit trees were planted in Miroslav and Velké Pavlovice.
Why? The main source of food for ground squirrels are the various parts of different herbs and grasses. Fruits, however, can be a very energetic, supplementary food source, available at a critical time of the year when the ground squirrels are preparing for their winter hibernation. Ground squirrel metabolism is quite remarkable as in a short period pre-hibernation, they can gain up to half of their body weight in fatty deposits. This subcutaneous fat is then gradually consumed throughout the seven months they spend hibernating. Fruits trees are now scattered across our agricultural landscape, unfavourable habitat for ground squirrels. Orchards on the other hand, are an area where ground squirrels can thrive due to grassy meadows in between trees and the opportunity to consume ripe fruit. As their name suggests, ground squirrels will only take advantage of the fallen fruit as they do not climb trees like their tree dwelling cousins! They will also build burrows under or nearby trees to keep close to the fruit. Starting in July till the end of September, ground squirrels slowly head underground to hibernate. First are the years non-reproducing males and females, second are the years reproducing females and eventually, the last to hibernate are the young born earlier in the year. This schedule all depends on how successful individuals have been in fattening up for the winter and from as early as June, they could be searching for additional, highly calorific foods. Fruits such as cherries and apricots which ripen in the early summer can therefore be a vital addition to their diet and could directly relate to their overwintering survival.
In collaboration with the Miroslav Aero Club, five fruit trees were planted on the edge of the local sports airport and with Winery Krejčiřík from Velké Pavlovice, 15 trees were planted in the vineyard terraces of Velké Pavlovice. Volunteers from both organisations will look after these trees going forward.
Whilst fruit trees in orchards and vineyards provide an important source of food for ground squirrels, they are not based in natural ground squirrel habitat. Just as natural fruit trees are missing from today’s landscape, so is this, natural grassy areas and steppe environments. These areas such as grassy hillsides, boundary strips, edges of field roads and pastures have now practically disappeared from our landscape. When traditional farming ended, these areas were either ploughed into large, agricultural fields or left to become overgrown. It so happens that two hillsides, part of the Lizniperky vineyard in the northeast of Velké Pavlovice, have now become overgrown with rosehip and sloe bushes. This area is a short distance area from a small satellite colony of ground squirrels! Furthermore, during a botanical survey in 2018, it was found that there are still a few rare species of steppe plants and that the herbaceous vegetation between bushes is still in a relatively good condition. We, therefore, had a meeting with the owner of the land, the town of Velké Pavlovice, and together planned the intervention, conservation and development of the land to protect the rare botanical species found and provide appropriate landscape for the local ground squirrel colony to move into. In the end, twenty volunteers gathered on a November weekend to clear the hillsides, removing rosehip and sloe bushes from a 400m long hillside.
Our third action for November was the organisation of a conference to disseminate information about recent field work and research results. The “Sousliks for Landscape, Landscape for Sousliks” conference which happened towards the end of November at Trkmanka Ecocenter, Velke Pavlovice, was attended by 66 experts and enthusiasts from across the Czech and Slovak Republics. During the first day, attendees listened to 22 lectures and in the evening, became acquainted with local “Souslik friendly vineyard” labelled wines in the local Lorraine cellar. The second day was devoted to a discussion on the update of the European Ground Squirrel Rescue Program in the Czech Republic. As the conference was attended by officials, scientists, students, nature conservationists, NGOs and farmers, the discussion was interesting and stimulating until the last minute. Those interested also visited a local ground squirrel colony in nearby vineyards and orchards.
We would like to thank everyone who participated in these activities. It is motivating to see how many people are willing to contribute. Everyone can help make our landscape look and work better to save our native species and ecosystems. Anyone can do this within their capabilities and abilities. Everybody has the opportunity to join in.
These events took place within the project “Sousliks for Landscape, Landscape for Sousliks - Monitoring and Support of European Ground Squirrel in South Moravia II”.