European Pond Turtle (Emys orbicularis)

© Lars Bergendorf

The European Pond Turtle is a widely distributed species in Europe. In the Boreal region of the EU, the species condition was assessed as unfavourable-bad during the last two reporting periods. The main pressures stem from human-activities such as changes in farming (drainage, annual ploughing, the use of biocides and the abandonment of extensive grazing systems), forest planting on open ground, and landscape fragmentation as well as predation and climate change-related extreme weather events. In view of these challenges, the species conservation measures taken by two LIFE projects helped improve its status regionally and triggered an increase in its population in Lithuania. The most effective measures were the protection of the species’ eggs and juveniles, as well as the improvement of habitat extent and quality and its ecological connectivity. Awareness raising amongst the public contributed to the species’ protection, but this process requires ongoing action.

Challenges addressed

  • Main threats and restrictive factors affecting the European Pond Turtle in Lithuania:
  • aquatic habitat destruction by land drainage that reduces small-size shallow water bodies;
  • deterioration of water bodies’ quality associated with anthropogenic activity (deepened water bodies for fisheries reduces shallow water areas);
  • destruction of terrestrial habitats through intensive farming (annual ploughing near the water bodies destroys potential places for nest placement);
  • loss of terrestrial habitats due to vegetation succession (growth of shrubs or trees shade the nesting sites that thus become unsuitable for incubation);
  • decrease in the direct illumination of the water surface by more than 80% due to the growth of shrubs and trees on the shores, making these water habitats less suitable for the species; and
  • landscape fragmentation (decrease in the number of water bodies used by turtles as interconnecting elements between sub-populations during movements, and other barriers to movement (e.g. roads, settlements or industry) that isolate turtle sub-populations from each other).

Objectives

The objective of the LIFE project ECONAT (LIFE09 NAT/LT/000581) was to create an ecological network in southern Lithuania to ensure the favourable conservation status of threatened populations of selected Habitats Directive Annex II and Annex IV-listed species, whilst simultaneously enhancing the ecological value of the target area. Specifically, the project aimed to secure the long-term viability of the target species within the ecological network by implementing direct conservation measures and habitat management actions. In particular, the project aimed to save the small and isolated populations of two umbrella species, the threatened European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis) and the European tree frog (Hyla arborea), from extinction.

The objective of the LIFE project NELEAP (LIFE05 NAT/LT/000094) was to ensure the favourable conservation status of the European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis) in the North European lowlands. The project also planned to ensure a favourable conservation status for the European fire-bellied toad (Bombina bombina) and the great crested newt (Triturus cristatus) in the areas where they occur together with Emys orbicularis. The project would furthermore demonstrate how to protect Bombina bombina in artificial and drained lowland meadows of Brandenburg in Germany and in the artificial and drained lowland meadows of Brandenburg in Germany and in the large natural swamps and fenland of Zuvintas National Park in Lithuania. The aim was to protect more than 90% of the Emys orbicularis individuals in the north European lowlands and to demonstrate the validity of protection measures for Bombina bombina a n d Triturus cristatus as well as other amphibian species such a s Hyla arborea a n d Pelobates fuscus.

Planned and implemented measures

The NELEAP and ECONAT LIFE projects established of two core areas of the ecological network. In these areas, extensive livestock farming was maintained to keep the habitats in good condition. A demonstration farm was also used to show farmers in the neighbourhood how to maintain the environment and generate income at the same time. In response to the insufficient protection of the threatened target species and ecological connectivity among the core areas, the ECONAT LIFE project team developed an ecological network, including the preparation of criteria, methods and management plans for the target species. The project proposed the enlargement of one Natura 2000 site and the creation of four new sites to enhance the network, which were designated by the Ministry of Environment. The subsequent management plans for the sites included specific habitat maintenance measures for a ten-year period to protect the above-mentioned amphibian and reptile species. The Good Practice Guide, prepared during the project, provides a detailed description on these issues. The project also developed criteria for defining the favourable conservation status of a range of target species, and this work revealed that securing favourable conservation status of small isolated populations by connecting them through green infrastructure is more cost-effective than strengthening each population separately. A specific conservation practice followed in Lithuania is the attention given to the species’ protection over its first two life-cycle phases (i.e. the protection of eggs and nesting places and protection of immature animals), as adult turtles are not affected by natural predators in the country. For example, the nesting sites are protected from predators, such as the Red Fox, using either covers or fences, though the latter proved to be ineffective as the turtle avoided the fenced areas.

Stakeholder involvement

During information field days of the ECONAT LIFE project, farmers were introduced to the practices of wetland grazing using appropriate breeds of beef cattle. As a result, farmers in surrounding areas purchased beef cattle and started to use wetlands for grazing. The beef cattle grazed the willow and stayed in wetlands during the summer heat, so farmers benefitted from an enlarged grazing area, whilst keeping the wetlands free of high vegetation.

To increase the potential for replication, the project organised four experience-exchange workshops and four study tours on particular topics. During the study tours, the Lithuanian national experts visited German, Latvian, Estonian, Danish and Polish colleagues. Together, they discussed the methods and exchanged knowledge on specific topics (e.g. rearing methods, environmentally friendly farming practices, amphibian conservation – prevention of road mortality, and restoration of reptilian and amphibian habitats). The results were brought together in the Best Practice Guidelines (‘Development of a Pilot Ecological Network in Southern Lithuania’) and distributed to target audiences.

The ECONAT LIFE project also included a range of local community and other stakeholder awareness raising activities. These included more than 150 educational activities in schools about the importance of preserving the endangered species. In addition, the National Visitors Center in the State Service for Protected Areas under the Ministry of Environment began offering educational sightseeing tours for school pupils (years 1-5) on the species. One of project partners, the Lithuanian Zoological Garden, organised four educational ‘Turtle Days’. The project activities encouraged local communities to join nature conservation activities by organising numerous and time-intensive meetings with landowners in the project area, during which the European Pond Turtle’s habitat needs and species protection measures were explained to farmers. Furthermore, developing understanding between different stakeholders, such as Road Administration representative under the Ministry of Transport and Communications and Veisiejai Regional Park administrators, led to the construction of a road pass for the turtle in the Regional Park, financed by the Lithuanian Road Administration.

Key achievements and impacts

The NELEAP project improved the conservation status of its targets species: namely the European Pond Turtle, the European Fire-Bellied Toad and the Northern Crested Newt. Conservation work included pond digging and restoration, the creation of nesting and hibernation sites for turtles, and the implementation of a sustainable grazing regime. Furthermore, an extensive awareness campaign was carried out to improve the knowledge of experts and local communities. The impact of the project actions was monitored up to the project end. The data showed that the species can colonise quickly the restored habitats, e.g. the newly dug or restored ponds acquire within 2-3 years typical vegetation, fauna and ecological qualities that are suitable for the target species. The farms in the project sites ensure long-term management, supported by the agri-environmental schemes and the farming of cattle.

The implementation of these LIFE projects improved the condition of European Pond Turtle habitats, which, due to natural succession and anthropogenic impacts, had been severely degraded, and also improved the viability of the turtle’s meta-populations. Although these did not lead to an overall improvements in the conservation status of the species, it did have positive impacts at a regional level (i.e. in southern Lithuania). The European Pond Turtle is considered to be an ‘umbrella species’, whereby its preservation ensures the preservation of other species sharing the same type of the habitats. For example, the turtle shares its habitats with other high conservation-value species, such as the Northern Crested Newt and European Fire-Bellied Toad. Other target species included in the ECONAT LIFE project were the Natterjack Toad (Bufo calamita), European Green Toad (Bufo viridis), European Tree Frog (Hyla arborea), Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis), Common Spadefoot Toad (Pelobates fuscus), Moor Frog (Rana arvalis) and the Pool Frog (Rana lessonae). Finally, the advice given to farmers on wetland grazing also provided socio-economic benefits. As the abandonment of infertile land increases in the region, new approaches to support the viability of extensive grazing using hardy cattle breeds helps provide job opportunities in an area with high unemployment.

Costs and financing

The total budget of the NELEAP LIFE project was €2,346,185, from which about a half of the sum was contributed by the EU (i.e. €1,161,373.00); however the source of co-financing is not explained in the final report. The total budget of the ECONAT LIFE project was €766,260, from which about a half of the sum (i.e. €381,510.00) was provided by the EU. The rest was co-financed by the World Wide Fund for Nature (Sweden), donations from Lithuanian citizens (2%), the income from commercial activities, and the Nordic Ministers Council (non EU).

Lessons learned

The key targeted conservation measures that led to the improvements

  • All three main activities contributed to the improvement of European Pond Turtle status in Lithuania:

1)       the creation and restoration of habitats suitable to the species;

2)       the creation of a demonstration ecological network in protected areas (pilot projects); for example, the establishment of two core areas of the ecological network, as well as the creation of ecological corridors along with stepping stone habitats to connect these core population areas in Natura 2000 sites; and

3)       the artificial incubation of rescued turtle eggs and their release into restored habitats.

  • While egg and juvenile protection was the main focus of the species’ conservation measures, the maintenance and connection of the habitats was important for all species life-cycle phases.

Conservation measures that have not been sufficiently effective

  • When covers or fences were used for the protection of eggs from predators, the latter proved to be ineffective as the turtles avoided the fenced areas.

Factors that supported the conservation measures

  • The availability of funding that could be specifically targeted towards the species’ conservation needs, in particular the LIFE Nature programme action grants supported the two projects that were very important for stabilising the turtle population in Lithuania.
  • Local stakeholder engagement raised awareness of the species and its habitat vulnerability, and highlighted the need for conservation measures as well as supporting their implementation, including after the LIFE project’s end.
  • Striving toward long-term conservation measures, such as the creation and restoration of habitats suitable for the species, combined with economic needs, was vital for achieving a sustainable regional improvement in the species’ conservation status.

Factors that constrained conservation measures

  • Limitations on available funding for specific species and habitat conservation measures, in particular after the LIFE projects.
  • The absence of LIFE projects that worked together with local policymakers to implement management plans in areas without a protection status, particularly after the LIFE project.
  • Pressures from land use change, such as the increasing conversion of pastures to arable land and afforestation, often affect the areas most suitable for turtle clutches (sandy hills), hindering the improvement of the species’ population status, even where conservation measures are in place.

Quick wins that could be applied elsewhere for the species

  • In Lithuania, species protection actions focus on the most vulnerable first two life-cycle phases of the species (i.e. the protection of eggs clutches and immature animals), as adult turtles do not have natural predators in the country.

Examples of good practice that could be applied to other species

  • The ECONAT LIFE project established criteria for creating ecological networks and produced a report called ‘Methodology for Creating the Ecological Network for the Target Species in the Nature Frame’, demonstrating an example of an ecological network. This provided a model for the development of ecological networks, from theory to practice, that can be applied to other locations, particularly in areas where the landscape is fragmented and current measures of species conservation appear to be insufficient. The project results reveal that securing favourable conservation status of small, isolated populations by connecting them through ecological corridors is more cost-effective than strengthening each population separately (Bastyte, 2015).
  • In the framework of the ECONAT LIFE project, the Meteliai and Veisiejai regional parks together with the Lithuanian Zoological garden carried out the turtle breeding programme, which was partially financed by national and structural funds. Another activity of this project was the development of a methodology for the rearing of turtle juveniles. It describes how turtle eggs can be taken from nature, incubated and reared in a zoological garden. This provides an example of best practice learning, as the methods of incubation and turtle rearing were learned from other countries' experience in similar projects; for example, the German turtle breeding station in Linum (Rhinluch Nature Protection Station under the State Office for the Environment in the Brandenburg Federal State) and the Frankfurt am Main and Berlin zoological gardens.

Reference information

The information presented here is based on the work done as part of the European Commission study on identifying the drivers of successful implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives (under contract ENV.F.1/FRA/2014/0063), carried out by the Institute for European Environmental Policy, BirdLife International, Deloitte, Denkstatt, Ecologic, ICF Consulting Services and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. The information and views set out in this case study are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Commission.

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