Conservationists in cooperation with the local government start sheep grazing in Spišské Podhradie
Sheep grazing has a long-term tradition in Spiš, and for its restoration in the meadows of Spišské Podhradie, several entities sterted to cooperate – the conservation association BROZ, the Administration of the Slovak Raj National Park, the city of Spišské Podhradie, and the Bishopric of Spišské with its seat in Spišské Podhradie at the Spišská Kapitula.
After several years of preparation, on Monday, May 22, on 18 hectares of meadows between Spišské Podhradie and Siva Brada, they will together start grazing of sheep. “Sheep grazing has a long-term tradition in Spiš, and we are happy that such cooperation has been successful and that we will graze here again. It is a highly visited tourist site and a cultural monument. This resulted in restrictions on animal husbandry, and so we could not find a farmer who would graze on the site for a long time. That’s why the city decided to go for it, the city became a registered sheep breeder and employs a young shepherd – juhas, who together with his father will graze the sheep in the meadows”, says the mayor of the city of Spišské Podhradie, Michal Kapusta.
While grazing was done in Spišské Podhradie in the past, thousands of ground squirrels lived in the meadows. Unfortunately, there is currently the last small colony of about 80 individuals, which sheep grazing is supposed to save. The ground squirrel needs a good view for its survival, and the pasture is ideal for it. Grazing also increases the species diversity of the plants and insects it feeds on. The ground squirrel is a critically endangered species whose numbers have declined from millions to a few thousand. “Thanks to the LIFE project Protection of ground squirrels funded by the European Union, we were able to purchase a herd and build a shelter for the sheep. As it is a UNESCO cultural heritage site, the building is in a traditional style and fits into the character of the landscape. We also chose the national Slovak breed of sheep, the original Valaška,” says Katarína Tuhárska, manager of the LIFE SYSEĽ project.
The owner of the land is the Spišské Biskupstvo in Spišské Podhradie, which participated on grazing and thus enabled the protection of this rare site, which is part of the NATURA 2000 network of protected areas. The administration of the Slovak Raj National Park, which initiated the idea of restoration of grazing, explains that such management of the area is suitable not only for ground squirrels, but also plants and insects in threatened herbaceous biotopes, which are also subject to protection here.
“We believe that thanks to grazing, the population of ground squirrels in this location will be saved and its colony will gradually grow. We have also transferred several individuals from other locations here to strengthen the genetics of the local population. We have already restored several locations in this way, and thanks to the project, the number of ground squirrels in Slovakia has increased from 20,000 to 36,000 in 2020,” adds Katarína Tuhárska from BROZ.
Ground squirrel conservation project activities are carried out at up to 25 locations in Slovakia, 5 locations in the Czech Republic and 2 locations in Poland. Conservationists restore meadows and pastures, plant rows of fruit trees, which restores the landscape to a character that suits the ground squirrel. They also carry out activities to save the gene pool by capturing individuals from genetically stable populations and transferring them to small colonies, as well as transferring groundhogs to other territories where the conditions are suitable for it. Thanks to the LIFE SYSEĽ project, Slovakia is currently the only European country where the population of ground squirrels is not decreasing , but it has a growing tendency.