Agro-environmental measures

France faces fine for neglecting Alsace Great Hamster

France is failing in its duty to protect the Great Hamster of Alsace, a cute fur-ball facing extinction with fewer than 200 remaining, the advocate-general of Europe's top court said on yesterday.

"If agro-environmental measures were put in place, in 2008, to protect the Great Hamster, they are incomplete at this stage," Juliane Kokott, a top legal expert at the European Court of Justice, wrote in an opinion.

The opinion of the advocate-general is not binding, but in most cases the judges in Luxembourg take the same line -- in which case France could land a multi-million-euro fine.

The European Commission brought the case, arguing that France has not applied European Union law covering protected species.

The hamster, Cricetus cricetus, an animal that hibernates for six months and spends the vast majority of its life alone, has been protected legally since 1993 but is now only found in fields around the eastern French city of Strasbourg.

Commission figures show its numbers fell from 1,167 in 2001 to as few as 161 in 2007.

The creature, which can grow to 10 inches (25 centimetres) long, has a brown and white face, a black belly and white paws. In old times, the paws were much prized by farmers who made them into trinkets.

The preferred grazing of the Great Hamster of Alsace -- forage crops such as alfalfa -- have largely been replaced by the more profitable maize, which it cannot abide.

France has previously given subsidies to farmers to grow alfalfa or wheat, but the commission wants it to do more.

(Published by The Australian - January 20, 2011)

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