Building a highway in exchange for hamsters

Highways, sure, but more hamsters: The French group Vinci, which manages a new motorway with a controversial environmental impact in eastern France, has been compelled to take part in a program to bring back the large Alsatian hamster, a symbol of species whose habitats are threatened by human activity, as compensation .

In Ernolsheim-Brüche, about twenty kilometers from the German border, 60 large hamsters are due to be reintroduced this morning. Under the scorching sun, small mammals with white-spotted faces wait in a wooden cage to be released into a wheat field.

Cotton! The hatch opens, and “cricetus cricetus”, the scientific name of the rodent, falls into a pre-dug hole about 80 cm deep, immediately covered with a wad of straw.

Building a highway in exchange for hamsters

“The goal is for them to come out in the evening when there is less risk of predators,” explains Celia Schappeller, a caretaker for the Sauvage Faune Sauvage (SFS) association, which has raised hamsters in captivity.

Also known as the “European hamster”, the animal is listed as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. There is also an electric fence to avoid ground predators: foxes, badgers or even cats.

On three hectares, the operation is repeated according to a methodical plan to avoid consanguinity in the burrows and to observe the alternation of males and females to encourage fruitful encounters.

Building a highway in exchange for hamsters

“Our operation aims to strengthen existing populations,” confirms Arnaud Guillemin, environmental manager for Vinci Autoroutes. The releases take place a few hundred meters in a straight line from the new A355 motorway, Strasbourg’s controversial western bypass.

legal obligation

Designed to ease congestion in the city, this 24-kilometer dual carriageway was opened in December after more than 40 years of disputes and resistance from the local community.

Building a highway in exchange for hamsters

This is the first infrastructure project in France born with a legal obligation to compensate for the loss of biodiversity since the 2016 law.

“By building (the highway) on agricultural plots, in particular with wheat fields, which are the habitat of the European hamster, we compensated for this with other wheat plots,” Guillemin sums up. This mechanism, launched in 2017, when work began, has already allowed the reintroduction of 800 individuals.

France’s first motorway concession group has teamed up with “dozens of farmers” who pledge not to grow maize for 10 years, a crop that pushes women into cannibalism, but instead grow wheat or alfalfa on the vine, which benefits Kornferkel, the name of a big hamster in Alsatian, literally “little cereal pig”.

Building a highway in exchange for hamsters

The hamster is an “umbrella” or “watchdog” species, “the hamster is a good indicator of the viability of the agricultural system,” says Timothy Gerard, whose biology thesis, done jointly with CNRS and the University of Strasbourg, is funded by Vinci. Highways.

“Current field cultivation” associated with traditional agriculture means that there is “a fairly significant decline in soil quality with the disappearance of insect communities.”

“Anachronous operation”

“The hamster didn’t wait for the highway to disappear! Maize monoculture and pesticides have ruined us,” says Jean-Paul Bourget, president of the SFS association.

Whoever denounced France by the European Court of Justice in 2011 for not doing enough to protect the animal believes that offsetting measures ultimately allow “biodiversity to be restored”.

Obliged to reduce the impact of his work, Vinci also built underground or elevated passages so that wild animals, including the European hamster, could cross the highway, even if Mr. Gérard admits the “low dispersal capacity” of the animal, only a few hundred meters away,” unlike the stork”, a successful reintroduction in Alsace.

“These release operations do not allow a sufficient core of the population to be restored,” lamented Stéphane Giraud, director of the association Alsace Nature, who denounces the “anachronistic communication operation” and “counting results that are not at the meeting point.”

In Alsace, the French biodiversity authority discovered 488 burrows in 2021, according to the national action plan, this species will need three times as many to survive.

Last January, an EPA opinion nullified the impact of an environmental study presented by Vinci.

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