Country: Spineless wonders also matter

Spare a thought for the invertebrates, many of which face extinction.
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The Independent Culture
AT LEAST 1,000 British invertebrates are on the verge of extinction or critically endangered. And who cares? Not the great British public, it seems.

"A wartbiter cricket or a green bush cricket just don't have the same appeal as an otter," says Dr Lyster, director general of the Wildlife Trust. "Companies fall over themselves to sponsor an otter - not just because they are rare, but because they are popular. Today the otter is probably Britain's best loved animal, but at the turn of the century it was regarded as vermin. Attitudes can change rapidly and what is our insignificant creepy-crawly could well be our children's conservation totem."

The problem is familiar to conservationists around Britain. "The medicinal leech is now probably down by about 12 sites," says Vin Fleming, species group manager at Scottish Natural Heritage. "It's an intrinsically repulsive creature, but it has had a long association with man and its endangered state is probably mainly due to decimation by collectors for the medical trade." In the end it has won corporate sponsorship from the pharmaceutical giant, Glaxo Wellcome, which is donating pounds 54,000 over three years to identify the handful of remaining leech sites and to help safeguard them for the future.

Likewise, at least the dietary habits of the dung beetle make it stand out from the crowd. "When Lord Montagu of Beaulieu announced that he was sponsoring this, it was treated as a joke," says Dr Lyster. "The same goes for the depressed river mussel, but at least they got noticed."

In contrast the narrow-headed ant (Formica exsecta) has trouble attracting attention. "To put it mildly, anyone who gets sponsorship for a narrow- headed ant deserves a huge pat on the back," says Dr Lyster. "In fact, if any of our fund-raisers managed it they'd get instant promotion."

The picture is repeated throughout the list of endangered species requiring particular attention on the Scottish Natural Heritage action plan. Although it is far from comprehensive, a brief glance shows that it is dominated by relative unknowns. There are only two mammals (the red squirrel and the beaver) and three birds (the sea eagle, red kite and corncrake) among the 28 species.

Of course some would question why we would want to bother saving creatures, many of which are so rare and nondescript that we are not even sure whether they have already vanished. Mr Fleming maintains that it is important to try.

"Everything has a role in the eco-system, even if we may not fully understand this," he says. "And on a more utilitarian note, people can get an enormous amount of pleasure studying and protecting some of our rarest species."

Fortunately, the public seems slowly to be recognising this. Dr Lyster believes the picture is slowly improving as the public becomes more aware of the importance of bio-diversity.

"Wildlife Trust members are proud of the rarer species found on their local reserves and the public at large is starting to demand that we look after our own bio-diversity," he says. "But when it comes to finding corporate sponsors for creepy-crawlies the picture is still pretty bleak." So while the water companies are sponsoring otters to the tune of pounds 750,000, the wartbiter, the great green bush cricket and mole crickets have little such luck.