Natrix natrix cypriaca, Court Ruling

A Cyprus Mail story By Poly Pantelides reports that the European Court of Justice yesterday said Cyprus broke EU law by failing to protect Paralimni lake and the endangered native grass snake.

“We hope (the ruling) will lead to swift action to properly protect the highly threatened Paralimni Lake, home to this unique snake and also a key site for birds,” said BirdLife Cyprus’ executive director, Dr Clairie Papazoglou. “We also hope it will lead to the authorities taking their obligations to implement EU nature directives far more seriously,” Papazoglou added.

However, Hans-Jorg Wiedl the reptile expert who rediscovered the grass snake after it was thought to be extinct for 40 years and who has been lobbying authorities for years, thinks “it’s too late”.

“It will take a miracle to save the snakes,” said, Wiedl better known as Snake George. “It breaks my heart,” he said almost in tears.

The endangered nonvenomous grass snake, Natrix natrix cypriaca, sometimes called the water snake can be found in Paralimni Lake and the Xyliatos Dam.

However Cyprus had not originally included the lake in its list of sites of community importance (SCIs) as part of the Habitats Directive.

The island’s federation of environmental and ecological organisations complained to the European Commission in May 2006, and in March 2007 the Commission launched an infringement procedure against Cyprus, asking the government in a letter of formal notice to include the lake in the CSIs list.

Cyprus said it would do this before the end of 2007 but eventually claimed the Commission did not follow proper procedure, so in June 2008 the Commission issued a reasoned opinion asking Cyprus to comply with the Habitats Directive.

Although the Republic responded with a list of measures it was taking to protect the grass snake and Paralimni Lake, the Commission received complaints on property development of the northern part of the lake.

By 2009, Cyprus included Paralimni Lake in the CSIs, except for the northern part of the site.

The Commission argued that the lake was essential to the survival of the grass snake but failing to include parts of it could not ensure the snake’s protection and conservation.

Cyprus said the snake was only found in the southern and eastern parts of the lake.

Because development in the area took place after the Commission launched the infringement procedure, the Commission’s arguments on the effect development could have on the snakes could not be admitted, the court said.

The court, however, said that excavation works in the northern part of the lake did disturb the snake and Cyprus “did not put in a system of strict protection in place”.

Cyprus broke EU law by not including the entire Paralimni Lake in the CSIs, “tolerating activities which seriously compromise the ecological characteristics” of the lake, “by not having taken the protective measures necessary to maintain the population” of the grass snake, and “by failing to take measures “to establish and apply a system of strict protection for that species,” the court said.

If Cyprus fails to act, the Commission may give it one final written warning before sending the case back to court, imposing potentially hefty financial penalties including a daily penalty payment for each day until the infringement ends.