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Why The Survival Of The Great Hamster of Alsace Is About More Than Naughty Little Rodents

The European Court of Justice has ordered France to take measures to save the endangered species, which has become a symbol for fighting urbanization and single-crop industrial farming.

The wild cousins of this French hamster are hanging on for survival
The wild cousins of this French hamster are hanging on for survival
Catherine Vincent

It is so discreet that hardly anyone is aware of its existence -- and even fewer actually care. We might say that the Great Hamster of Alsace could have disappeared without so much as a rustling of the trees. And here it is, arousing the ire of the European Court of Justice!

In a judgment issued on June, 9, the European court states that France has not taken sufficient measures to protect the rodent, and must set this situation straight "as soon as possible." This final judgment has just been justified once again by the count of hamster holes in 2011 in the eastern French departments of Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin, as published on July 8, by the National Environment, City Planning and Housing Organization. In 22 villages, 460 holes were found. In 2010, 480 holes were present in 25 different villages.

But why should we care about the Great Hamster? Isn't it an animal that people in Alsace (the only French region where it has ever been able to thrive) have long considered a terrible pest? Why has this animal, fond of wheat and barley and whose maximum length is 25 cm, been protected on a European scale since 1992, and in France since 1993? Because this Cricetus cricetus, which used to be ruthlessly hunted, has become the symbol of the fight against urbanization and single-crop corn farming that covers now more than 80% of the Alsatian plane.

To save the species, Jean-Paul Burget founded the association Save The Wildlife (SFS), which lodged the complaint with the European Court. "The hamster is the emblem of the small field fauna," he says. "All the wildlife will disappear with it."

SFS runs three hamster farms, and with the support of the Hunting and Wildlife National Office (ONCFS), works to reintroduce the farmed Great Hamsters into the wild as part of a national plan to maintain the population of the species.

Paying damages

Still, this and other efforts appear to be insufficient to guarantee the survival of the species. The number of holes present in the region in 2011 is far lower than the minimal number – around 1,500 holes -- that would enable the species to survive.

In response to the European Court of Justice, France's Ecology Minister on June 21 launched a call for proposals to set up compensation for damages done to biodiversity. Alsace's protection of its Great Hamster is among its four objectives.

Benoît Hartmann, spokesman for the French Nature Environment association, worries that the basic problem remains finding the right territories suitable for reintroducing the hamsters. "In theory, these compensations are good news," he says. "But in practice, how are we going to find areas to put this project in place?"

Burget says in the areas where they have been introduced, straw crops have been planted, and surrounded by electric fences to prevent foxes from eating the hamsters. "If we want to save the hamster, we only need a good network of straw crops," he concludes.

Read the original story in French

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