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Minority groups

This is an article about minority groups. The minorities I have in mind are the species groups that are less well supported in terms of conservation action and concern. While birds, for example, are generally at the top of many people’s priority list, followed by mammals and anything else that looks cute or conventionally beautiful, others remain neglected in comparison.

Take reptiles and amphibians. Our snakes, lizards, frogs, toads and newts depend heavily on a relatively small number of advocates to fight their cause. And when it comes to something like bryophytes, there are even fewer defenders.

While wild flowers have a strong following, the ‘lower’ plants such as bryophytes – a group that includes mosses, liverworts and hornworts – are much more of a minority interest. I recall a guided tour of a Cornish mine site on which I was shown some bryophyte species that resembled a kind of scum on the surface of the ground. Not easy to love unless you have the right attitude.

It could be argued that the species with most supporters contribute most to humanity, in terms of interest and pleasure, and so deserve the greatest conservation effort. But ecologists know that all species are essential to the web of life on which our health and survival depends.

If we argue that some species contribute more to that web than others, perhaps there is a case for prioritising animals such as the common frog. Each breeding female lays about a thousand eggs per annum, so we would all be up to our knees in froglets if the vast majority of the eggs and tadpoles were not eaten by something. Added up for the whole population of any area, that amounts to a huge contribution to sustaining the life of other species. Meanwhile, the adult frogs are out there helping with the natural population control of smaller animals such as insects.

Another criterion for increasing the ‘value’ of a species is its rarity. Too many species have already become extinct at human hands and we shouldn’t let that continue. But the species that have most positive impact on our quality of life are the common ones.

Most of us wouldn’t notice a difference if the trembling sea mat – a rare colonial creature that forms moss-like mats in saline lagoons – was to disappear. In fact, even such a firm favourite as the otter doesn’t seem to do much for me, as I’ve never seen one and possibly never will – although I take the word of my fellow conservationists that they do exist.

Contrast that with the common frog, which can be relied upon to turn up and make an exhibition of itself every spring… and even to move into your garden if you dig a pond. That’s the sort of wildlife service to humanity that wins my support.