European hamsters are released in Alsace to compensate for the impact of the motorway.

Vinci, who manages a new motorway near Strasbourg with a controversial environmental impact, was forced to take part in a program to reintroduce the Alsatian common hamster, an emblematic species whose habitat is threatened by human activity, as compensation.

“I wish everyone would leave with their fingers,” smiles Celia Schappeller, referring to one of the photojournalists trying to immortalize too closely a small mammal with a white-spotted snout that sticks out of the wire mesh of a wooden cage from which he waits, to be released into this wheat patch. This morning, under the scorching and early sun, 60 large hamsters must be re-introduced.

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 straw.

“The goal is for them to come out in the evening when there is less risk of predation,” says Celia Schappeller, caretaker of the Sauvage Faune Sauvage (SFS), which raised the specimens in captivity ahead of the big day.

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.

“Our operation aims to strengthen existing populations,” confirms Arnaud Guillemin, environmental manager for Vinci Autoroutes. The releases are a few hundred meters away as the crow flies from its new A355, the controversial Great Western Bypass (GCO) of Strasbourg.

– Legal obligation –

Designed to ease congestion in the Alsatian capital, this 24-kilometer dual carriageway toll road, opened in December after more than 40 years of disputes and local resistance, is the first infrastructure project born with a legal obligation to offset biodiversity loss since 2016. law.

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

Members of Vinci Autoroutes transport cages of large Alsatian hamsters to be released into the wild on June 14, 2022 in Ernolsheim-Bruch, Bas-Rhin (AFP – PATRICK HERZOG)

Thus, the first group of motorway concessions in France have teamed up with “dozens of farmers” who pledge not to grow corn for 10 years, a crop that encourages women to cannibalism, but rather to grow wheat or alfalfa on the vine, favorable to the “Kornferkel”. , the name of a large hamster in Alsatian, literally “little cereal pig”.

“The hamster is an ‘umbrella’ or ‘sentinel’ species, ‘the hamster is a good indicator of the viability of the agricultural system,'” says 25-year-old Timothy Gerard, whose PhD in biology, done jointly with CNRS and the University of Strasbourg, is funded. Vinci Autoroutes. “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! We were let down by monoculture of corn and pesticides,” Jean-Paul Burger irritated. The symbolic president of the SFS, who denounced France by the European Court of Justice in 2011 for not doing enough to protect animals, believes the GCO’s offsetting measures ultimately allow “biodiversity to be restored.”

A large Alsatian hamster hides in a field after being released back into the wild on June 14, 2022 in Ernolsheim-Bruch, Bas-Rhin (AFP - PATRIK HERZOG)
A large Alsatian hamster hides in a field after being released back into the wild on June 14, 2022 in Ernolsheim-Bruch, Bas-Rhin (AFP – PATRIK HERZOG)

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

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

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. “Something is wrong with the reintroduction methodology when this species has been protected since 1993,” adds Mr. Giraud, who advocates microplots and object testing.

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

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