Individuals from two colonies of European Ground Squirrel (also known as Souslik), whose habitats were faced with imminent destruction, have been moved to safer pastures. For five days over the May Day holiday, members of Milvus Group camped out among ground squirrel populations in the Banat region of Western Romania. Here there were two colonies whose habitats are soon to disappear.
One is in a small grassland on the outskirts of Sânnicolau Mare town where, an adjacentfarm has been given permission to plough the land and sow wheat crops. The other habitatis located in an industrial zone at the edge of Arad City, where development will soon destroy the 3 hectare grassland habitat.
Using specially designed live traps placed in front of the entry holes into the ground squirrels’ burrows, the members of Milvus Group captured dozens of individuals from these areas. Unfortunately, as the team were working in haste to remove the animals before their habitat was destroyed, this operation coincided with the breeding period of the ground squirrels. As capture and movement is greatly stressful to pregnant females, each animal was immediately checked for its sex and pregnancy status, and any pregnant females were released. Later this year the team will return to move the mothers and their offspring.
All of the other ground squirrels were weighed and measurements were taken, recording their tail and hind foot and their length. This information will be collated and used to draw comparisons between individuals from different colonies. The traps of the animals were then padded out with grass and soil and covered with blankets, to resemble as closely as possible their natural habitats until we could transport them to the new pasture.
The next day, early in the morning, the ground squirrels were transported to their new habitats. From Arad, the ground squirrels were taken 30km north to a semi-natural grassland near the town of Sântana. This 300 hectare pasture lies within a Special Protected Area (Natura 2000 area primarily designated for the conservation of birds) and is moderately grazed with sheep. From Sânnicolau Mare, the ground squirrels were transported to the periphery of a large protected grassland (within a Site of Community Importance) just 10 kilometres away.
Both of these new habitats already have well established ground squirrel populations, and the newly introduced animals will be easily able to settle there.
The new habitats are also located near to areas where nest boxes for Saker Falcons have been installed and to where Sakers have returned this year. As such, even with the loss of two ground squirrel habitats, the Saker Falcons can still find nearby colonies of ground squirrel to feed upon.