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The boy and the snail

What is it about young children and snails?

A garden snail. Picture: Martin Walters
A garden snail. Picture: Martin Walters

Snails often feature in children’s stories, and many youngsters find these molluscs fascinating. Maybe it is because they can move without legs, or because of the highly unusual feature of living inside a beautiful spiral shell. Children learn early about shapes, and the spiral is one of the most interesting, and is also easy to draw.

Our grandson Toby, 5, has long been a snail-seeker and snail-watcher. Far from being annoyed by wet weather, he gets excited at the thought such conditions will guarantee him happy hunting in the garden.

Toby, 5, with a snail. Picture: Martin Walters
Toby, 5, with a snail. Picture: Martin Walters

He also likes slugs but knows to avoid picking them up as their slime is quite different, being super-sticky and hard to wash off, unlike the much more watery slime of snails. He mostly finds the common garden snail (Cornu aspersum) and sometimes the smaller brown-lipped banded snail (Cepaea nemoralis) with its boldly striped shell.

Toby and his family live in Coulsdon close to the edge of the North Downs and near to the local reserve of Farthing Downs, with its rich chalk grassland and pockets of mixed woodland. One day on a ramble near his school he stumbled across an empty snail shell which he eagerly added to his collection. But there was something rather odd about this shell, mainly the fact that it was bigger than any he had seen before. His prize find was in fact a Roman snail (Helix pomatia), a much rarer species and one that is so uncommon (though it may be locally abundant) that it is protected by law.

A Roman snail. Picture: Martin Walters
A Roman snail. Picture: Martin Walters

Its common name refers to the widespread belief that it was introduced to Britain by the Romans, who probably also ate this nutritious mollusc. There is no convincing proof for this story and this splendid mollusc may be native in scattered areas of southern England. Now the main strongholds of the Roman or edible snail are in parts of the Cotswolds, Chilterns and North Downs.

This is the snail that is eaten as a delicacy across much of Europe, where it is much more abundant. It likes dry, sunny habitats on limestone or chalky soils and is often to be found in vineyards.

A garden snail. Picture: Martin Walters
A garden snail. Picture: Martin Walters

In France, the snails are cooked with garlic butter, chicken stock or wine and then placed into empty shells and served with special tongs and narrow forks for extracting the meat. In Crete, they are boiled in white wine with bay leaves, onion and celery, dipped in flour and fried with vinegar and rosemary, while in Malta they are typically simmered in red wine with marjoram, mint and basil.

There is a Cambridge connection to my story. John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861) was professor of botany here and is perhaps most famous for having taught Charles Darwin and persuading the young Darwin to go on his historic sea voyage aboard HMS Beagle.

Henslow was a keen all-round naturalist and he was delighted to find the Roman snail in Cherry Hinton chalk pit in 1826. In the 1820s, it was also known from near Burwell and on the Devil’s Dyke, but sadly it no longer seems to occur at these sites though the conditions are suitable.

Roman snails. Picture: Martin Walters
Roman snails. Picture: Martin Walters

Then in 1972, Roman snails were introduced to three other sites to the south of Cambridge, in at least two of which they thrive to this day. I recently visited one of these sites, an old chalk clunch pit, on a warm, sunny day. The soil was dry and though I searched hard there were no snails visible. Then I turned a corner to find a heap of decomposing vegetation flanked by nettles and other weeds, under which lurked several Roman snails. This rare species is clearly still thriving here after all those years.

In the summer of 2019, more than 100 were recorded at this site and I am sure with a longer search we would have found many more.

  • Martin Walters is a Cambridge-based writer and naturalist.

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