FRANCE (ENDANGERED SPECIES) For many lifetimes, the Great Hamster of Alsace, the last wild hamster of Europe, has roamed the French countryside, happily living off  the plentiful alfalfa and grasses. Unfortunately, France seems to have forgotten their promise to protect the species and the population is dwindling. Read how European courts are now ruling in favor of the rodents, demanding that France step up and help these hamsters before they disappear. — Global Animal

Photo Credit: M. Watson/Ardea, via Animals Animals

The New York Times, Steven Erlanger

PARIS — France was punished on Thursday for not taking proper care of its hamsters.

The Court of Justice in Luxembourg, the European Union’s highest court, ruled Thursday that France had failed to protect the Great Hamster of Alsace, sometimes known as the European hamster, the last wild hamster species in Western Europe. If France does not adjust its agricultural and urbanization policies sufficiently to protect it, the court said, the government will be subject to fines of as much as $24.6 million.

The Great Hamster, which can grow up to 10 inches long, has a brown-and-white face, white paws and a black belly. There are thought to be about 800 left in France, with burrows in Alsace along the Rhine. That is an improvement: the number had dropped to fewer than 200 four years ago, according to figures from the European Commission, which brought the lawsuit in 2009.

The Great Hamster likes grass and crops like alfalfa, but these have largely been replaced by corn, which is not ripe in the spring when the hamster awakens from six months of hibernation, eager to eat and mate. It must make longer and more hazardous journeys as its grazing area shrinks because of new highways and housing developments.

“Protection measures for the Great Hamster put in place by France were insufficient” in 2008 “to ensure the strict protection of the species” in accordance with European law, the court ruled. The hamster has been protected legally since 1993, and while it is prevalent in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, it is thought to exist in Western Europe only in Alsace.

Photo Credit: Frederick Florin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Farmers have generally considered the hamster to be a farmyard pest, and before it was protected they flooded its burrows and used poison and traps to kill it.

Jean-Paul Burget, president of Sauvegarde Faune Sauvage, or Safeguard Wildlife, in Wittenheim, in Alsace, said in a telephone interview that “we are very happy,” and that “European rules must be followed.” France “now must work to raise the population of hamsters up to 1,500,” which would be enough to preserve the species, he said, and the prefecture of Alsace “must stop some urbanization projects and restore” older agreements to grow certain cereals that hamsters eat.

Mr. Burget’s association filed an initial complaint to the European Commission on behalf of the Great Hamster in 2006.

The court did, however, reject the commission’s complaint about the use of nitrates, on the grounds that the plaintiff had failed to demonstrate “to the requisite legal standard” a link between the use of nitrates in agriculture and the “deterioration or destruction of the breeding sites or resting places of the European hamster.”

The chief of staff for Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, France’s minister of ecology, sustainable development, transport and housing, said Thursday evening that Ms. Kosciusko-Morizet would make no comment on the ruling.