Battle of the Berkshire speedsters

Gardeners loathe them, the French eat them and now it seems a new fate awaits the humble snail – the bulldozer.

The High Court has seldom had before it stranger subject matter than the recent case of the whorl snail. For while gardeners believe Armageddon is the answer for all snails, the whorl snail has some friends.

The legal battle was waged by Friends of the Earth, the Wildlife Trusts, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Naturalists Trust, the Royal Society for Nature Conservation and two local residents who joined forces in a bid to stop bulldozers working on the Newbury bypass from flattening the domain of the snails.

However, Mr Justice Sedley regretfully ruled that faster movers take precedence in Berkshire. The argument that the Government had unlawfully given road builders Costains the go-ahead for the £74 million bypass contract without considering the needs of the whorl snail was unsustainable he said.

In court, it was argued that areas of land along the bypass route where the snail was known to live should be included on the EC Habitats

Directive preservation list. The bulldozers, it was argued, would flatten not just the snails but a habitat that had existed nearly unchanged since the last Ice Age and on those grounds the bypass construction could not legally take place.

Spelling the end for Newbury's whorl snails, the judge said the Government could not be shown to have acted improperly or irrationally in making its decision.

Some might argue that this David v Goliath battle was always destined to fail. But barrister Peter Roderick, part-time legal adviser to Friends of the Earth, said that before he recommended any action was begun he had to be satisfied there was a chance of success.

Roderick said: "We felt we had a fighting chance. We would not attempt a case where we were reasonably sure we were on a hiding to nothing."

Roderick, who has a long involvement in environmental battles, said he preferred to be seen as someone who used his legal skills to save "the world l want to live in" rather than as a lawyer. But he said in weighing up whether to take a case to court he detached himself from his feelings. "It is necessary to be resolved and committed to what you are doing," he said. "But as a lawyer one of the big things has to be to consider the costs that will be facing the organisations I represent. These costs are invariably high and can be ill afforded, and regardless of whether I see what I consider to be a good argument, I have to remember the courts are not readily going to run into disagreement with government."

He added that because of the need to protect the organisations he represented there was a danger to "err too much on the side of caution". But in this case, although the road builders won the day, he had no doubt it was right to fight.