Keeping Snails as Pets
Snails are fascinating creatures, with many varieties living up to five years or more, and most kinds breeding in captivity, so the growing popularity of these unassuming animals is easy to understand. Undemanding to keep, simple to house and surprisingly active, snails can make very interesting pets.
There are a number of British snails to choose from – and in many ways they can be a good introduction to the world of snail keeping.
The Roman Snail (Helix pomatia) is the largest in the UK, having a shell that can be 2 inches (5cm) across. Originally introduced to Britain by the Romans as a food item, this rare species is protected in the UK, so collecting wild specimens is now against the law, although it is widely bred in captivity by snail farms to meet the demand for edible snails.
The Brown Garden Snail (Helix aspersa) is a familiar – and often unwelcome – sight in our gardens, while the Brown and White Lipped Banded Snails (Cepea nemoralis and C. nemoralis respectively) are small and attractive species. Typically they have brown bands running long-ways around a white or creamy yellow shell, though pink and even band-less shells also occur. The name comes from the characteristic brown or white border at the base of the shell.
Caring for British Snails
Any suitably sized and escape-proof container can be used to house your snails, and aquarium tanks, large plastic food containers with holes bored for ventilation and even large glass jars have all been used to good effect. How big your container needs to be depends on the species being kept; as a general rule, a square foot (900 square cm) of floor-space will accommodate a pair of Helix snails, while double that number of Cepea snails will happily live in the same area.
The flooring needs to be able to maintain damp conditions, but not be prone to going boggy or sour and also be fairly easy and cheap to replace, since you’ll probably find you need to clean out the tank every few weeks. Garden soil or compost are amongst the best – but avoid soils that are sandy or gravelly as they are not ideal for the snails to move about on. You’ll also need to provide them with some places to hide during the day; old broken flowerpots or some cork bark are ideal for this job.
For anyone looking for a rather more exotic kind of a snail to keep as a pet, the ever-popular varieties of Giant African Land Snails – affectionately known as “GALS” to many of their fans – take some beating.
Achatina fulica – the East African Land Snail – is one of the most commonly seen, growing to a shell length of 4 – 6 inches (10 – 15cm), this snail is one of the best kinds to keep and will breed very successfully in captivity. Other species to be seen on sale include the Tiger or Ghana Giant Snail (Achatina achatina) which has a shell some 10 inches (25cm) long, making it the largest land snail in the world; the Giant Blond Snail (Achatina immaculata) and the West African Land Snail (Archachatina marginata).
Caring for Giant Snails
Housing Giant Snails calls for much the same kind of set-up as for their British relatives – though the container obviously needs to be appreciably larger! The main difference between keeping these tropical species and our own snails is the need for some additional warmth, particularly in the winter months, though this can be provided very effectively with heat mats underneath the tank. A temperature around 21 – 26C (70 – 78F) is ideal.
These snails enjoy burrowing, so a good, deep layer of flooring material is essential, to allow them to bury themselves successfully – perhaps as much as 6 or 8 inches (15-20cm) being necessary for some of the big ones. If you keep two or more of these giants together, the deep floor will also provide your pets with somewhere to bury their eggs once they get around to breeding.
All of these species, British or African, are wholly – or almost entirely – vegetarian and will benefit from as wide a range of diet as you can arrange for them, including most supermarket fruit and vegetables and home-grown items, including many common weeds such as dandelion leaves. Whatever you feed them, it’s important to wash everything thoroughly since snails are susceptible to pesticides – and remove anything that is left untouched before it has a chance to go off.
Snails also need a source of calcium to keep them healthy and encourage proper shell growth – which is particularly important for the giant varieties. Putting a cuttlefish bone in the tank will allow your pets to meet their needs.
Whether you choose to collect yours from amongst the UK’s native varieties, or purchase some of the spectacular African giants, there’s no escaping the fact that snails have an appeal all of their own.