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Heliciculture is the farming of snails for human consumption (and for snail mucous used in make-up and skin cream in the Latino community). Garbage middens from prehistoric settlements contain large numbers of cooked shells–so snails have been utilized as food for a long time. Sustained snail farming dates back at least to pre-Roman Phoenician colonies, however the ancient Romans took heliciculture and snail cooking to new levels. Romans gastronomes regarded snails as a particular delicacy and they introduced certain Mediterranean species to everywhere they conquered. When the empire fell apart Gaul continued the Roman tradition of enjoying escargot. Today the French alone consume 40,000 tons of snails per year. Serious agricultural effort is required to keep up with that sort of appetite.
Roman heliciculture apparently involved building little islands from which the snails could not escape. Today, however, snails are kept in carefully fenced garden plots. A small gauge metal wall which extends into the earth is necessary to keep snail predators out (particularly mice, shrews, raccoons, skunks, and toads) while a second interior wall made of specially constructed material keeps the snails in. A net can be added so that birds do not eat the tasty gastropods. Since pesticide and herbicide could injure the snails or the people eating them, organic greens are grown for the snails to consume. Apparently snails operate by Tron-style rules and do not like to cross another snail’s slime path—which means that only 20 snails can be kept per square meter. There are two principal species which are consumed as escargot. The smaller and more common Helix aspersa is also known as the “petit gris” or “escargot chagrine” whereas the larger, rarer Helix pomatia is called the “Roman snail,” “apple snail,” or “escargot de Bourgogne”. Both of these Mediterranean species have been widely introduced around the world for agricultural purposes. They are now endemic pests in Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, North America and southern South America (and probably elsewhere). It’s funny to think that the snail eating your cabbages is the descendant of a snail which escaped from some long-dead hungry French chef. I can sort of imagine the scene as a black and white early Disney cartoon with giddy jazz playing in the background.
Everybody and everything seems to enjoy eating snails including…other snails. A particular source of difficulty for snail farmers is cannibalism. Larger snails will eat eggs and hatchlings for the calcium. If not eaten by something, snails can live a long time. They hibernate in winter and Helix pomatia can live up to 35 years.