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'Great Hamster of Alsace' blocks march of business

It is only 10in long and spends half the time hibernating, but it could still block the march of business in one corner of France. No wonder it is named the "Great Hamster of Alsace".

Environmentalists have gone to court to try to block the transformation of 120 hectares of farmland into a business park, warning that the project threatens the last colony of wild hamsters in western Europe.

The "Great Hamster of Alsace" ( Cricetus cricetus), also known as the black-bellied hamster, is one of the most threatened mammals in Europe, the European Commission has reported. It has been a protected species since 1993.

The environmental group Alsace Nature and its allies claim the area in the Bas-Rhin region is a key "reconquest zone" for the giant hamster. Director Stéphane Giraud warned that if the hamster, with its distinctive white and brown face, black belly and white paws, disappears from the region, "it will disappear from the whole country".

The nocturnal rodent spends 80 per cent of its life underground and hibernates for six months every year. Until the 1960s, it was considered a pest. Farmers set up traps and left poison, and even rewarded children with sweets or money for bringing them hamster tails and paws. Now only about 400 survive in Alsace. Environmentalists could not find a single hamster living in the threatened area.

Although urbanisation is partly to blame, the hamsters have also suffered from the spread of lucrative maize crops in Alsace.

Though called a "corn piglet" in local dialect, the wild hamster prefers clover, alfalfa, wheat and even cabbages, which have now been replaced by maize. The European Court of Justice accuses the government of failing to protect the hamster's habitat, and in 2007 the European Commission threatened France with a €17m fine.

Last year, farmers became so angry about government projects to encourage alfalfa crops that the French Ecology Minister was twice forced to cancel a visit to Alsace.

"We have the possibility of creating between 2,000 and 3,000 jobs and we're being blocked because the area might be favourable to hamsters," said Etienne Wolf, the Mayor of Brumath, the small town in Alsace where the business park is planned.