(CN) – Europe’s high court ruled that France needs to step up its efforts to help survival of the European hamster, which has been nearly eradicated as a farmland pest.
Characterized by a long black stripe down its belly, the proportionally large hamster can carry up to an ounce of food in its cheek pouches. It is also trapped for its fur.
The European Commission, which acts as the executive body for the European Union, brought suit against France after receiving a complaint regarding hamster conservation by a French wildlife group.
Despite having implemented protective measures, population of the hamster – thought to survive in the Western Europe only along the Rhine River in Alsace, France – plummeted from 1,160 in 2001 to less than 180 by 2007.
Though the once widespread species has been largely eradicated from Western Europe, it still exists in central Asia and across Eastern Europe, including Romania and parts of Russia.
The crepuscular creature gathers seeds, beans and insects in its voluminous cheek pouches, stashing them in underground storage areas within its burrow complexes. One hamster can store up to 140 pounds of such stocks, into which it dips during brief breaks from hibernation, running October through March.
In the Alsace region, the hamsters are threatened by agriculture and urbanization. The hamster feeds on traditional crops, including alfalfa and grains. Increased corn cultivation has negatively affected the hamster, as the new-world crop isn’t ready for harvest when the rodent emerges from hibernation.
A habitats directive to promote biological diversity requires countries to protect rare species. France had maintained three priority-action areas for the hamster, with a goal of 22 percent prevalence of crops beneficial to the hamsters by 2008.
This goal was attained in only one area by 2008. France proposed expanding the areas and further tweaking farming practices.
But these efforts, to protect breeding and “resting” sites till 2008, have not been enough, the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice for the European Union ruled on Thursday.
France needs to implement further agricultural changes to protect the hamster, the court said. And it should expand and clarify prohibitions on urban development. The court pointed out that the action areas represent only 2 percent of all hamster habitat.
The New York Times reported that France may be subject to $24.6 million in fines if it does not find a remedy.
The hamster is light brown, with a black belly and white patches of fur. A solitary species, the hamsters live alone in their burrows, avoiding each other in the wild except during mating season from April to August, at which time the males make short visits to females. Females may give birth to up to a dozen offspring at once.