France faces huge fine for failing to save great hamster of Alsace

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The Independent Online

Ordinarily you would not expect to fork out more than about €20 (14) for a pet hamster. France however has been threatened by the European Commission with a fine of €17m or €28,333 per animal for failing to protect the only colony of wild hamsters in western Europe.

The rodent in question is the "great hamster of Alsace", otherwise known as the European hamster (Cricetus cricetus) of which there are only 600 remaining in eastern France. As recently as 30 years ago this creature, far from being endangered, was considered a farmland pest in Alsace. From about the middle of the 20th century various methods were used to try to eradicate it. This war against the hamsters was rather too successful and in 1993 the one-time "pest" was added to France's list of endangered mammals.

Yet despite the cessation of its active destruction, the remaining hamster population has failed to increase. Its struggle to survive is now being threatened by urban and agricultural developments that have diminished its food supply.

The hamster, with its white paws, black stomach and reddish-brown back, was not called the "great hamster of Alsace" out of affection. Measuring 20cm in length, it is more similar to a guinea-pig than a domestic hamster.

Stphane Giraud, of the Group for the Study and Protection of the Mammals of Alsace, says that if the species is to survive there needs to be at least two burrows per hectare. In Alsace the strongest population densities are only 0.1 to 0.2 burrows per hectare.

The problem facing the hamsters is that once-plentiful cabbages, which were their favourite diet, have now been abandoned by farmers for more lucrative maize. So when the hamster awakes from its hibernation in March there is nothing to eat. It is forced to traverse long distances to find not only food but also a mate. A journey often littered with roads and housing developments.

In 2000 a rescue plan was launched, with the government making available €52,000 to encourage farmers to plant crops other than maize. Given that maize earns far more than other crops, the attempt failed. This year 100 artificially reared hamsters have been released, but M. Giraud is doubtful that this will work. "If we are going to have a wild species of hamster in Alsace it needs the right environment to live in," he said.

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