Wild hamster population gets a boost from across the border

Summary

Animals bred in captivity in the Netherlands will be released in Flanders to boost the local population

Corn wolves

Hamsters from the Netherlands are being introduced to Flanders to top up the creatures’ gene pool. Flanders’ own wild hamsters are struggling to survive, as their natural habitat is under threat and the population has shrunk to a size where inbreeding is becoming a serious risk to their health.

The hamsters that live wild in Flanders are less colourful than the golden hamsters usually kept as pets, but have been part of the region’s indigenous wildlife for centuries. They build their nests on the fringes of fields and forage among the crops, hence the local name korenwolf, or corn wolf.

The industrialisation of farming drastically reduced the wild hamster population, so that the animals can now only be found in small areas around Tongeren, in Limburg. Initial efforts to save them involved working with farmers to find ways to protect their natural habitat. Numbers have now stabilised, but that is not enough.

Population growth

“If we want to keep the species here, then it has to expand,” said Inge Nevelsteen, co-ordinator of the hamster protection project at the regional land agency for Haspengouw and Voeren, in an interview with Radio 2 Limburg. “If the number of animals falls below a critical threshold you will get too much inbreeding, and then the species doesn’t thrive.”

The hamsters being parachuted into Tongeren have been bred in captivity in the Netherlands, under a similar programme to support endangered populations. Care has been taken to make sure the animals being introduced to Flanders will be a good fit.

“We’ve also looked at their genetic characteristics,” said Bart Tessens of the Agency for Nature and Woodlands, “and the animals that are now being released in Tongeren really belong here.”

Photo courtesy VRT