These animals never kick, and no dangerous machinery is required to farm them. Their carbon footprint is minuscule, and their meat is high in protein and low in fat.
The State’s tiny group of about 30 snail farmers believe their sector is the answer to many problems, but they say they are not getting the support they need to develop it.
Escargot Ireland, an umbrella group representing 25 snail farms, say that supporting the sector is "a no-brainer". The climate is ideal and the demand from abroad for snails cannot be met.
“We have everything required to make this successful except research and Government help,” says Escargot Ireland’s chairwoman Deirdre O’Connor.
The reason why we are targeting this market is because it's a small market and they are paying a premium price for premium Irish products
She set up Skellig Escargot on the family suckler farm in Cahersiveen during the Covid lockdown when she had to give up her job in a local shop to care for her four young children.
“We had been hearing so much about climate change and global warming and we wanted to do our best to diversify,” she says.
She bought 4,000 breeder snails and converted one quarter of an acre for snail farming. But there is no manual for running a snail farm in Ireland and because of the niche nature of the business, new entrants must find their own way.
“Unfortunately, it has been an ongoing battle,” she says. “We are hitting brick walls all the way.”
‘Trial and error’
Eva Milka has been hitting similar brick walls since she began snail farming in Carlow nine years ago. But she has persevered with Gaelic Escargot, and it is now her livelihood.
“The first three seasons for us, they were awful,” she says. “I mean, we were trying to adopt an already existing farming method from other European countries, but we were failing massively because the weather in Ireland is so much different. So by trial and error, we had to develop a method that suits the Irish weather conditions. But our methods are still not perfect.”
One of her biggest obstacles is the fact that her farming cycle takes 10 months. “So we have to wait for results to see what’s working and what’s not working, and we have to come up with an idea on how to improve it, and then we have to wait another 10 months to see the results.”
In order to do it ourselves, we need to know how, and this is what we are still struggling with
It is clearly working now as she produces five tonnes of snails a year and signed an agreement with Singapore to export her entire harvest this year.
“The reason why we are targeting this market is because it’s a small market and they are paying a premium price for premium Irish products. And we are too small to target all the other markets. The shortage of snails on the market is just unbelievable.”
She has no problem shipping the product because of the quantities involved but Escargot Ireland says it makes no economic sense for smaller scale snail farmers to ship their small quantities. According to Deirdre O'Connor, the way snails are classified means they cannot be shipped with shellfish because of the risk of cross-contamination.
"Yet France categorises them together and snails can be exported alongside seafood. It doesn't make any sense," she says. "If the classification was changed, not only could we ship with shellfish produce, we could also look at processing snails in the same facilities as other shellfish and mollusc species, as the processing methods for both are very similar."
Currently snails are sent to Greece for processing. "If we are trying to reduce our carbon footprint in Irish farming then shipping to Greece for processing makes absolutely no sense," she says.
Milka would like to see Teagasc using agriculture students to research the sector and is happy to let them use her farm as a research centre. "We need a training manual for people that are looking into farming snails. People think that farming snails is the matter of throwing them to the field and they look after themselves."
She says global warming has brought an unexpected boost to Irish snail farmers because the warmer nights mean that the snails eat more and grow faster. "But global warming is massively damaging snail farming in Spain and Italy for example, because of the massive heatwaves they are getting. So I can see a huge opportunity to grow this industry in Ireland.
“But in order to do it ourselves, we need to know how, and this is what we are still struggling with.”
Escargot Ireland says its members have spent between €5,000 and €20,000 to set up their farms and worry that they will lose it all if they don’t get support. “We are trying our best but we cannot do this alone,” Deirdre O’Connor says.
Asked about its support for the sector, a Department of Agriculture spokesman said farmers interested in diversifying into snail farming should contact their local Teagasc office for advice.
A Teagasc spokesman said the agency had no research projects on snail production at the moment, but it had worked with some snail producers through the Food Works programme, and through a new entrant awards programme. Stephen Ryan from Tuam, Co Galway won the 2019 Irish Newbie new entrant award for his Exclusive Escargot snail farming business.
Meanwhile, a Bord Bia spokeswoman said it was planning to update its research on the snail market in the coming months.
From shell to slime, every part of a snail has some use. “The meat is being used mainly for human consumption, but also to feed reptiles,” says Milka.
“The snail eggs are used to produce snail caviar, which is one of the most expensive foods in the world. And then snail slime is being used by the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries because of its many properties. Don’t forget the snail shell – pure calcium – and it can also be used as a fertiliser. So there’s no waste whatsoever.”
There is no system in place yet to certify organic snail farms, but she says it is a totally organic process.
“There’s no need to use any chemicals, no fertilisers, no antibiotics, no vaccines, nothing like that whatsoever. And then there’s no need for heavy machinery either. I believe it’s a perfect enterprise for a female farmer.”
Deirdre O’Connor also believes it would be an ideal enterprise for a farmer who is thinking of retiring but afraid they will have nothing to do. “It would be perfect for the mental health of an older person who is no longer able for the demands of farming.”