The French Government faces punishment for failing to look after its hamsters.

The European Commission has brought a case in the European Court for allowing the great hamster of Alsace, the only wild hamster in Western Europe, to decline to the point of extinction.

If found guilty, the French Government faces fines of up to €17 million ($37 million) or €68,000 for each of the 250 animals still thought to be living in the fields around the city of Strasbourg in the east of the country.

The great hamster, European hamster or Cricetus cricetus is much larger, and prettier, than its familiar domesticated cousins. It has a brown and white face, a black belly and white paws and can grow to be 25.5cm long.

Although a protected species since 1993, the wild European hamster is one of the most threatened mammals on the continent. Its habitat has been decimated by suburban sprawl. Its preferred foods - wheat, barley, lucerne and cabbages - have been ousted by vast fields of more profitable maize, which it detests.

After several warnings, the European Commission has decided to take legal action against Paris under the European Union directives for the preservation of wildlife.

The French Government has previously attempted to save the hamster by giving farmers subsidies to grow wheat or lucerne but to no avail. A census this year succeeded in locating only 250 hamsters, compared with 500 seven years ago and an estimated self-sustaining population of 1500.

Many more things could be tried, according to Jean-Paul Burget, president of Sauvegarde Faune Sauvage (Safeguard Wildlife), the pressure group that first brought a complaint against Paris. "To survive, the hamster needs a protected zone of 240,000ha. At present, it has just 3490ha," he said.

"Within this area, the growing of maize should be restricted to 50 per cent of the fields."

The great hamster is believed to have emigrated to France from eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. It is a solitary creature, spending 80 per cent of its time underground, seeking the company of other adults only to mate in the spring.

Until they were declared a protected species in 1993, they were persecuted by farmers, who gave children sweets or money in return for hamster paws or tails. By the 1980s they had been driven from the rest of France.