Business spurns the dormouse

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GIVEN that it is close to extinction, the depressed river mussel is appropriately named. But it has more reason to be cheerful than most of Britain's vanishing wildlife: it is one of only a handful of endangered species to benefit from a much-vaunted business sponsorship scheme.

Only 12 of more than 300 eligible animals and plants have been taken up by companies under the scheme, launched three years ago. Of pounds 1.5m raised, pounds 1m has gone to one species, the otter.

John Gummer, who as environment secretary in the last government, initiated the search for "commercial champions" of disappearing species, says he is "very disappointed" at businesses' failure to come forward. "I thought a lot of companies would take it on," he said. "People said they were terribly interested. But they have not put their money where their mouth was."

Almost all the species to have got sponsors are spectacular, cuddly, or quirky, like the mussel (named after the shape of its shell) which has been adopted by Thames Water and Anglian Water. Tesco is sponsoring the skylark, Norsk Hydro the water vole, Wessex Water the early gentian, and Glaxo Wellcome is spending pounds 10,000 over two years on the medicinal leech.

No fewer than 13 companies are backing otters, released to the Thames last week by Sir David Attenborough and Environment minister Michael Meacher as part of the scheme.

But even such prospects as the dormouse, the song thrush, the hare, the cornflower, the turtledove, and four kinds of bumblebees have failed to find champions. So what hope is there for the dung beetle, the black bog ant, the robber fly, the nail fungus, the churchyard lichen, or the wart-biter?

Don Potts, an environmental adviser who helped to persuade ICI and Norsk Hydro to get involved, said: "It's a struggle. Putting it in a form that the chairman of the board will understand is complicated. You have to make it simple, amusing, or quirky before people start to bite."

Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth said he could think of several companies which would find the dung beetle, "admirably fitted in with their image". Mr Gummer said Aristotle uses the beetle as "an example of an animal that is despised but does a huge amount of good".