Snail's place in protest folklore

Desmoulin's whorl snail is a rare, marsh-loving, slime-eating mollusc the size of a large ball bearing. But it is loved and cherished by some.

Late last year it won a place in a list of 116 plant and animal species for which rescue plans have been proposed by a government committee. Since then it has emerged that the tiny yellow-brown snail lives on the path of the Newbury bypass. It became an instant champion of the roads protesters.

The discovery is unlikely to stop the construction of the pounds 100m road, but it could cause serious embarrassment to the Government and conceivably lead to it being prosecuted by the European Commission.

The valleys of the Lambourn and Kennet chalk streams are among the snail's strongholds; the dual carriageway road will cross them on earth embankments. The rescue committee, which consists of academics, government scientists, wildlife charities and civil servants, placed the snail on the list of 116 because it is rare and declining. Conservationists see it as an ''indicator species'' - the badge of well-preserved fens on chalk rocks. The draining and destruction of fens has caused its decline and, as the rescue plan points out, their conservation is the key to the mollusc's future.

Because the snail is covered by the EU's habitats directive, English Nature is duty bound to recommend the creation of protected areas to ensure its conservation. The Government, in turn, is legally bound to designate at least some of these Special Areas of Conservation. It could, however, ignore the recommendation by claiming the bypass represented an ''overriding public interest''.