Alsace wild hamsters – Fighting for survival

The threatened grand hamster d'Alsace

The threatened grand hamster d'Alsace - Credit: Archant

A campaign to save the grand hamster d’Alsace has involved the European Court of Justice and divided communities, says Mark Stratton

They’re cute and can be nearly a foot long. They spend most of their life underground and are rarely seen. Yet the grand hamster d’Alsace has had local politicians up in arms as conservationists battle to save the species.

It may sound like an April Fool’s joke, but wild hamsters genuinely roam the Alsace region along France’s north-eastern border with Germany, the westernmost limit of the species’ range in Europe. Cricetus cricetus, also known as the common or European hamster, has swirls of white and gingery-brown fur and a distinctive, black underbelly. It is larger than the domesticated hamster, being similar in size to a large guinea pig or small rabbit.

Until 1993 the hamster was officially classified as an agricultural pest because its preferred habitat of arable crops brought them into conflict with farmers. Hamsters thrived on less-intensively produced fields of winter wheat and alfalfa, but the arrival of a subsidy-driven, intensive maize monoculture in the 1970s has all but wiped them out.

As conservationist Julien Eidenschenck, of France’s national wildlife agency, the Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage, explained: “Changing agricultural practices such as bigger fields of spring-planted maize are unsuitable for them because they have no shelter or food when they emerge from hibernation and the same occurs after July’s harvest.”

Between 1972 and 2013 the communes they occupied in Alsace fell from 339 to just 13 out of more than 1,000 in the region. Eidenschenck estimates that only 500 to 1,000 hamsters remain.

The decline prompted wildlife-protection society Sauvegarde Faune Sauvage to complain to the European Court of Justice that France was failing in its legal duty to protect the hamsters. It led to a court judgment in 2011 threatening France with a €17 million fine if it did not make progress protecting them. If eventually imposed, the fine could run to €200,000-€300,000 per day thereafter, so efforts to save the species have intensified.

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The local government organisation in Strasbourg responsible for enforcing Ministry of the Environment orders has now implemented new and, to some, controversial conservation measures. Clotilde Herbillon, of Directions Régionales de l’Environnement, de l’Aménagement et du Logement (DREAL), said: “Our strategy is to create a better habitat for hamsters by introducing less-intensive farmed crops and limiting the spread of urbanisation.

“We’ve created a 9,000-hectare Special Protection Zone, which covers 99 per cent of the remaining hamster populations. This requires developers to get special permission for building and to carry out mitigation work for any negative effects on the hamsters. We are also enforcing a regulation to prohibit development within 600 metres of a hamster burrow.”

This has not gone down well with business leaders and town mayors around the protected area, who claim the rules will stifle economic development.

Under the headline, ‘Des communes du Bas-Rhin [département] refusent d’être transformées en réserves à hamsters’ the newspaper Le Monde noted that 50 communes were seeking a judicial review at the Conseil d’État in Paris. Objectors claim the regulations threaten potential new developments such as a proposed facility by drinks giant Kronenbourg near Obernai because of the uncertainty and cost of potential mitigation work. This may include funding favourable hamster crop regimes on surrounding farmland for up to 20 years.

Herbillon is reluctant to talk about individual cases, but claims such fears are exaggerated and that Kronenbourg has yet to apply formally for planning permission.

“The European Court of Justice said we were breaking the EU Habitats Directive on protecting hamsters, so we had no choice but to act,” she said. “We think we have done the right thing with these measures, but I cannot predict the outcome for the hamsters because in nature you can never be sure.”

Eidenschenck backs the new protection zone, but is concerned that the regulation to prohibit development within 600 metres of burrows might be counterproductive when it comes to encouraging town mayors and farmers to work more favourably for the hamsters’ benefit.

He is implementing a new strategy called the Hamster Action Plan, which involves signing up farmers within the protection zone to make at least 22 per cent of their crops hamster-friendly and to practise less-intensive farming in return for state compensation. Due to the critically low levels of the hamster population, the key is persuading farmers to accept a new strategy that involves rearing hamsters in breeding centres in Alsace. Around 500 to 600 are scheduled to be released annually from now until 2017.

“Some mayors have asked me not to release the hamsters within 600 metres of their urban areas because this might affect new developments,” Eidenschenck explained. “In the past, hamsters have been seen as agricultural pests, so I hope they don’t become economic pests, as it will not encourage farmers to accept their release, because of local political pressure.”

Yet the conservationist is optimistic that hamsters will persevere on French soil. His latest estimate is that 20 per cent of farmers within the protection zone have joined the Hamster Action Plan. He says most Alsace farmers are too young to remember the crop damage caused by hamsters when they were abundant in the pre-1970s.

“It’s a challenge to change such farming habits after 50 years running after higher yields,” he said. “But lots of farmers want to share the responsibility to improve the environment and maintain the hamsters.”