Sandy’s Garden ... October Snails

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Would it were true that, as is the case with merchandise during the October sales … when it’s gone, it’s gone!

When October snails were gone, they were gone for good. Alas, the impressive crop of snails which my garden now produces annually, will, I expect and fear, be replicated next year without the least effort on my part. I have wondered in the past where these snails emanated, for a few years ago a snail was a rare sight in my garden and today I would like to be able to sell them for ten-a-penny. Whence came the current ranks of … in my eyes … unwelcome intruders? Is it down to climate change? Have farmers changed their land-management techniques to make them more snail-friendly? Did an exploring colony of snails hitch a ride on a train from their home territory and disembark at Polmont? Or did some alien power drop them on Scotland in a bid to damage our agricultural economy?

Whatever their source, I am still finding snails trailing their way through my garden. Most snails hibernate, sleeping in some sheltered crevices in trees or under convenient stones, having sealed themselves into their shells with a layer of mucus to create a cap, properly called an epiphragm, and often in groups or colonies – a habit which surprises me, for if I could find such a colony I would be able to exterminate a lot of these sleeping pests at one fell swoop. Their reason for hibernating is their difficulty in finding food during the period between October and March, for the common or garden snail, the species which inhabits my territory, is a herbivore, feeding on many types of plant matter – flowers, fruit, tree-bark, leaves and cereals. They need to find sources of calcium to allow them to enlarge their shells as they progress from being tiny babies to being full-grown adults; and they also eat sand or soil to add this essential chemical element to their diet. (I am sure they would like to get their mouths around some of the calcium-rich foods which we eat, like milk, cheese and yogurt.)

ornu aspersa, to give the common garden snail its pukka scientific name, was called Helix aspersa for more than 200 years - both names translate into English as the ‘spotted snail’ in reference to the shell patterning. It has a grey coloured body and a brown shell, varying from light brown to quite dark brown with usually darker brown markings, with a white lip at the entrance. If, gentle reader, you find one on the move one evening … for they are essentially nocturnal feeders … or during a wet day; and if you are prepared to bend down and study it; you’ll notice that it has four tentacles sprouting from its head. The upper, longer pair have eyes at the end, while the lower, shorter pair help the snail to feel where it is going. The mouth is located between these two lower tentacles. It slithers along, a discharge of mucus helping a single, flat, muscular organ … called a ‘foot’ …slide over rough surfaces. Garden snails are hermaphrodites, meaning that every garden snail has both male and female sex organs. They can make themselves pregnant, but it is much more common for them to mate, one taking the male role while the other plays the part of the female, after which they change over and repeat the process in reverse. Both now-pregnant snails will lay between 40 and 80 eggs in shallow holes which they usually dig in the ground where, after 4 weeks or so, barring misadventure, the eggs will hatch into tiny, perfectly formed snails. The babies will grow slowly for somewhere about two years to become fully-grown, adult snails.

Snails can produce six clutches of eggs in a year; and that fertility, allied to our international movement of plants, has helped the garden snail, which originally came from the Mediterranean region, reach every continent bar Antarctica. Its diet makes it unwelcome almost everywhere; and its reproductive capacity makes it difficult to eradicate – as I know!