Things are looking up for the Great Hamster of Alsace. Also known as the European Hamster (cricetus cricetus), this last remaining wild hamster species in Western Europe saw its population hit rock bottom last year at just 161 living members. But France has announced a three million Euro ($4.2 million) initiative designed to bring the threatened and (it must be said) adorable creature back to sustainable numbers. The repopulation plan is a result of a stern warning handed down from the European Union’s Court of Justice, which threatened France with fines equivalent to $24.6 million if it did not demonstrate more visible results in its efforts to preserve the “corn pig”, as it is known not-so-affectionately to Alsatian farmers.
The hamster has seen such a precipitous drop in numbers due in part to new highway projects in the region and increasing urban sprawl, to say nothing of the fact that until fairly recently it was viewed as a farmyard pest and actively hunted. But in a strange turn, perhaps the most fundamental cause of the hamster’s decline lies in the European Union itself. The Union’s Common European Agricultural Policy has encouraged the monoculture of corn by French farmers, to the exclusion of cabbage, beetroot and alfalfa–the hamster’s traditional favorites. In fact, over 80% of commercial farmland in Alsace is now taken up by corn, forcing the chubby-cheeked rodent to travel further and further across less and less hospitable terrain in search of a bite to eat. Brussels’s attempt to now reverse that transition somewhat has been greeted none too happily by Alsatian farmers, whose angry protests have more than once forced French agriculture ministers to cancel trips to the region. Just a small (furry, alfalfa-loving) example of the difficulties and confusion the EU faces in meshing market and agricultural policy with realities in the regions.