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Monday, 12 February, 2001, 17:43 GMT
Germany faces hamster reprimand
European hamster
Under threat: The hamsters face extinction, says Brussels (Picture: Heidelberg University)
Germany is being threatened with legal action over its policy on hamsters.

The European Commission says the last natural habitats of a native European hamster breed are under threat, and the German authorities are not doing enough to save the species.

Farming and building have both been allowed in areas where the European, or black-bellied, hamsters live, say commission officials.

We must take our legal safeguards seriously or we face the wipeout of endangered species through the creeping loss of habitats

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstroem
They live in Germany, the Netherlands and north-east France, but their habitats are being eroded by intensive farming and building.

An area near the German city of Aachen, near the Dutch border, is among the sites which Brussels wants protected.

The German authorities say they have no record of black-bellied hamsters living in the area, but officials in Brussels insist they are to be found there.

"The commission is sure there are hamsters," said Annika Oestergren, spokeswoman for the Environment Commissioner.

Cheek pouches

The action taken by Brussels is called issuing a "reasoned opinion", which amounts to a formal warning. If no action is taken, Germany could be brought before the European Court of Justice and heavily fined.

"We must take our legal safeguards seriously or we face the wipeout of endangered species through the creeping loss of habitats," said the commissioner, Margot Wallstroem.

The black-bellied hamsters are believed to originate in eastern Europe and Russia, where they lived on steppes and farmland, or by riverbanks.

UK rebuked

The animals - also known as common hamsters, or, more formally, as "cricetus cricetus" - can grow up to 32cm (12 inches) long, making them bigger and stronger than the breeds normally sold as pets. Their cheek pouches are big enough to hold up to 30g of food - and are also filled with air when the rodent is swimming.

In a separate case, the UK has been given similar warnings about failure to protect the habitats of otters, bats and great crested newts.

An earlier case is also pending against Greece, which has been accused of damaging beaches used by the Mediterranean sea turtle.

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