“We have learnt the hard way what it takes to produce a quality Irish snail product,” says Eva. “Even down to selecting the best snail species; Helix Aspersa Muller. We have tried other variants including the closely related Helix Aspersa Maxima but it was not as successful.”
Eva stresses that they had to learn how best to suit the snail to the Irish climate. “In Poland and France they have four defined seasons with plenty of warm nights – essential for the nocturnal animals. Here in Ireland we tend to oscillate between spring and autumn so it was harder to plan the maturation cycle at first.”
Four Stages of Snail Production
There are four main stages to snail production. The first is the mating and production of eggs. Start-up snail farmers can skip this bit in the first year if they prefer, making their baptism into snail farming easier and go directly to the purchase of the baby snails.
The snails mate in a warm chamber before being encouraged to lay their eggs through the introduction of soil. Each snail may lay up to 150 eggs. These are gathered manually using a plastic spoon and placed in the incubation chamber. This is a small area where the stacked boxes of snails are kept at 20 C where they hatch after 15 days.
At stage three the tiny snails are placed in a poly tunnel to fatten. They will stay here for eight weeks.
Stage four is where the snails are moved into the field. Just one acre can accommodate 1.2m snails and produce 10t of snail meat. The acre is laid out with tilted wooden supports, like pallets propped up, which both protect the snails from adverse weather and allow dry food to be place on top for when they come up to feed at night.
Netting covers the entire area and galvanised sheets primed with an electric fence on the border prevent the snails from escaping and birds and rats from entering.
Harvesting is done by hand and is, Eva admits, labour intensive. The snails are then purged, netted and exported. Breeding adults will be selected from the acre and placed in a hibernation room where they will sleep over winter until they woken in December to mate, beginning the cycle once more.
Eva has learnt the hard way in the past four years how to successfully farm snails and then to finding distribution to the untapped and huge demand on the continent.
Setting up in Snails
Now, she wants to teach other farmers on small holdings to do the same and runs regular workshops to teach people everything she had learnt. These are run three times a month, cost €250 and last a day. People attending the workshops are also encouraged to come and help as interns at critical times of the production.
She explains that the initial investment costs for 10t production is approximately €24,000, of which baby snails account for €7,500. Year two these costs are eliminated as the farmer will now have their own breeding snails (approximately 25pc of stock). Annual costs include feed, electricity, labour and maintenance and can be in the region of €17,000.
Baby snails cost 11c per thousand while mature breeding adults cost between 10c and15c per animal. Between 25 and 30 thousand breeders are required to populate an acre.
Sales of 10t of snails can achieve approximately €40,000 giving a net gross profit of €20,000.
The big distributors of snails on the continent are not interested in individual farms – they want to buy in bulk and this is where Eva is driving her business model – to create a Central Producer Hub of indigenous Irish snail farmers.
She plans to keep Garryhill where the first farm is located as a research and development centre and move production to a joint venture in Kildare. She is also exploring the added value side of things creating products for wholesale and eventually direct to the public.
Snail meat is very versatile, high in protein, low in fat and yet has high reserves of calcium and iron. It also has a very low carbon footprint making it a very attractive food source for the future.
“Ten years ago nobody ate avocados in Ireland,” says Eva. “And now they are ubiquitous. Over the past four years we have learnt everything there is to know about how to farm snails in Ireland. It is a very suitable climate (just look at your back garden, it is full of snails), there is access to land, clean water, and good soils. In addition, we are a farming country with an excellent international reputation for food. So, if the rest of the world can do it, we can do it as well. And we can do it better.”
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