European ground squirrel (Spermophilus citellus) illustrates perfectly how the targeted eradication of one species can reduce an abundant animal to a critically endangered species. Ground squirrel is an important species of native steppe ecosystems. Once, the ground squirrel was a common rodent in Europe. It is a steppe animal, and in the 1950s, you could have encountered it in almost all meadows and pastures.

Because people wanted higher yields in agriculture, the ground squirrel was labelled an economic pest, and targeted eradication took place. Its elimination was, however, unnecessary because this animal does not build up wintertime reserves and its effect on the harvest was negligible. Human greed, stupidity, and cruelty almost completely destroyed it. It didn’t take long, and after 40 years, the species was labelled critically endangered. The ground squirrel is a small harmless animal; an adult can be 20 cm high and weigh about 300 grams.

An uncertain future of European ground squirrels

The ground squirrel cannot live in any habitat as it requires low grass vegetation to maintain visual contact with other members of its colony and to notice predators quickly. The ground squirrel had been exterminated in most of its original habitats. Fortunately, a rescue program has been set up for the European ground squirrel aiming not only at maintaining the existing population, but also expanding it. Ground squirrel colonies have been artificially created to ensure the survival of the species, and you can visit them, for example, in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. People often go to see these colonies, but human contact does not benefit them much.

In nature, ground squirrels feed on seeds, plant shoots and roots, and even eat vegetables or small invertebrates. However, people often feed it with sweets, pastries and other foods that can kill it. It is necessary to respect the ground squirrel colonies and not to endanger these creatures unnecessarily. Ground squirrels face a somewhat uncertain future because their already low population has decreased over the past ten years by 30% due to urbanisation, the transformation of pastures and meadows into fields or forests, and the construction of roads. We have to step up our efforts to protect these creatures so that ground squirrels can continue to be part of the ecosystem.

Geographic distribution of the European ground squirrel

photo: leakshare, IUCN Red List of Threatened Species,