Brussels steps in to save the Great Hamster of Alsace

The European Commission hopes a fine of up to £14.5m will encourage the French government to take better care of an endangered rodent

John Lichfield
Sunday 28 June 2009 00:00
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Like a seven-year-old child, the French government faces punishment for failing to look after its hamsters.

The European Commission has brought a case against Paris in the European Court for allowing the Great Hamster of Alsace, the only wild hamster in western Europe, to decline to the point of extinction.

If found guilty, the French government faces fines of up to €17m (£14.5m) – or €68,000 for each of the 250 animals still thought to be living in the fields around the city of Strasbourg in the east of the country.

The Great Hamster, European hamster or Cricetus cricetus is much larger, and prettier, than its familiar domesticated cousins. It has a brown and white face, a black belly and white paws and can grow to be 10in long.

Although a protected species since 1993, the wild European hamster is one of the most threatened mammals on the continent. Its habitat has been decimated by suburban sprawl. Its preferred foods – wheat, barley, lucerne and cabbages – have been ousted by vast fields of more profitable maize, which it detests.

After several warnings, the European Commission has decided to take legal action against Paris under the European Union directives for the preservation of wildlife. The French government has previously attempted to save the hamster by giving farmers subsidies to grow wheat or lucerne but to no avail. A census this year succeeded in locating only 250 hamsters, compared with 500 seven years ago and an estimated self-sustaining population of 1,500.

What more can France do? Build giant wheels for the giant hamsters to play on?

Many more things could be tried, according to Jean-Paul Burget, president of Sauvegarde Faune Sauvage (Safeguard Wildlife), the pressure group that first brought a complaint against Paris. "To survive, the hamster needs a protected zone of 240,000 hectares [nearly 600,000 acres]. At present, it has just 3,490 hectares," he said.

"Within this area, the growing of maize should be restricted to 50 per cent of the fields."

The Great Hamster is believed to have emigrated to France from eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. It is a solitary creature, which spends 80 per cent of its time underground, seeking the company of other adults only to mate in the spring.

Until they were declared a protected species in 1993, they were persecuted by farmers, who gave children sweets or money in return for hamster paws or tails. By the 1980s they had been driven from the rest of France and reduced to a small area of the plain of Alsace, around Strasbourg.

Wildlife campaigners say the creature can survive only if its population becomes more dense and its favourite foods more plentiful. When the hamster awakes from its six-month hibernation in March, it is now forced to travel long distances to find food and a mate. Its journeys have been made hazardous by new housing developments and motorways.

Pierre Gouth, of the pressure group SOS Grand Hamster d'Alsace, said: "I have to admit that I am very pessimistic. Their numbers are going down all the time. We just have to hope that this news [the court action by Brussels] will force the government to take their plight seriously at last."

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