Ground squirrels facing the end of the line

15-02-2005

In the 1950's the Bohemian ground squirrel was a common animal- in fact these small furry rodents were practically considered vermin. But due to agricultural changes their numbers have dropped dramatically and they are now classified as being critically endangered. Now, the largest population of ground squirrels in the Czech Republic is found in a rather unexpected place, a 76 hectare area of ground in Letnany, a rather bleak and faceless suburb of Prague. Investors have taken an interest in the property which lies at the end of a soon-to-be-constructed metro line. This has nature conservationists concerned.

Ground squirrelGround squirrel How many ground squirrels are there?

There is a colony of about 400 ground squirrels, which as you already mentioned, is the largest population of these animals in the Czech Republic. The piece of land they're on is currently being used as an airstrip.

Don't they mind the noise and the traffic?

Well that's the funny thing, they actually seem to thrive in this environment. I was really surprised by this and spoke to Marcela Mikeskova from Czech Union for Nature Conservation:

"Even some biologists are baffled by it because the ground squirrels really like it and they are really satisfied. At one point, there was talk of moving the airport but in the end, it was not done because of fears that they would stop reproducing and stop living there."

So, is it something about the airplanes that they like?

Ground squirrelGround squirrel Well, not exactly. It's the fact that the grass is kept short, it's a large field and there are no people or dogs to disturb them there. In the past, there were many more fields like this but nowadays this kind of environment is hard to come by and so the ground squirrels are dying out.

I understand there is a problem with the property...

Well the first problem is that it's not clear who the property actually belongs to. A British investor has bought it, but the receivers for the now defunct firm that originally sold the site claim that the firm had no right to do so. The whole matter is now in the courts.

So why are nature conservationists alarmed?

Well they are worried that the property will fall into the hands of the British investors and that they most definitely did not invest into the property with the intention of maintaining it for the sake of the ground squirrels. The property is at the end of a future metro line, so its real estate value is potentially quite high.

So what is the solution? Couldn't the ground squirrels just be moved?

Well, no. It would be very complicated and they are very sensitive to being moved. If this population disappears it basically means the end of ground squirrels in the Czech Republic.

Well ideally, the property should fall into the hands of someone who does not mind maintaining it for the ground squirrels. The fact that the squirrels are classified as critically endangered ensures them a certain degree of protection and the Environment Ministry may declare the property a national nature heritage site which would also help the ground squirrels.

15-02-2005