The joy of snails: prettier than you think

·2 min read
 (Isabel Hardman)
(Isabel Hardman)

Snails enjoyed the damp cool weather of early spring but the soaring temperatures in London this week mean many will disappear into their shells for protection. They lock themselves in with a plug of mucus which stops their bodies from drying out in the heat. If needs be, these gastropods can hibernate for a couple of years, which many may envy after the ordeal of the pandemic.

They’re not much liked by gardeners but in a natural ecosystem snails work their way through far more decomposing vegetation than the sort of living, tender stuff that is a drive-through takeaway feast for them in our flower beds. In a wild place, it is lovely to find them sliding their way through a dewy meadow in the mornings, and waiting for their eyes and noses to re-emerge tentatively. Most snails have four tentacles. The longer two have little, not particularly powerful eyes at the end of them. The shorter, lower pair have noses and also act like whiskers to help the snail feel its way around. It moves using its foot, a muscle on the underside of its body that propels it along the trail of slime that it secretes.

 (Isabel Hardman)
(Isabel Hardman)

Close up, the shell of the Garden Snail, Cornu aspersum, is much prettier than we give it credit for, with a tortoiseshell pattern. If you can’t bear looking at a live snail, then seek out a song thrush’s anvil — a rock or paving slab against which the bird flings snails — and enjoy the mosaic of crushed shells around the edges.

An even lovelier shell belongs to the white-lipped snail, Cepaea hortensis, which lives in a stylish stripy house. The Grove Snail, Cepaea nemoralis, is a close relative that’s also beautifully-striped and can be any number of colours, including buttery yellow or rusty orange.

Soon you will find yourself seeking out the tiny, fragile-shelled snails like the Garlic Snail, Oxychilus alliarius, or the similarly tiny Clear Glass Snail, Aegopinella nitidula. But real snail aficionados will keep a look out for the water-based ones, too, like the Nautilus Ram’s-horn, Gyraulus crispa, which is only a couple of millimetres across. But who knows where a fascination with nature can take you next?

Have you spotted any snails recently? Let us know in the comments below.

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