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Snail-bait? Winkling out escargot law

Matthew Chatfield
Latest posts by Matthew Chatfield (see all)

Ranger reader Vanessa poses a very interesting question about the Roman snail Helix pomatia. She asks what the legal position is concerning captive-bred pet Helix pomatia in people’s homes. (Update: the answer is shown at the bottom of this post) By extrapolation one can also include in this question all the escargots sold and eaten in restaurants, as these are Helix pomatia even though few if any originate in the UK.

Helix pomatia (c) Max Westby

Interestingly, since April 2008 the Roman snail has had limited protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. In England only it is protected from intentional taking, injury or killing, as well as possession and sale. As far as wild snails are concerned this makes sense. But what about snails sold in restaurants, and what about ‘pet’ snails? Are escargot-munchers flirting with a life of garlicky-flavoured crime? The Conchological Society of Great Britain & Ireland has been involved in the discussions about this, and apparently the matter was considered before the order was made. On their website Dr. Martin Willing writes of the process:

…following a long wait; we learnt in early 2005 that DEFRA, whilst not rejecting Helix pomatia, had nevertheless placed it into a’neutral’ category pending wider consultations. Apparently they were concerned about the commercial impact upon the restaurant trade. Informed opinion was of the belief that this would rapidly lead to Roman Snails being dropped from Wildlife and Countryside Act consideration. At this point an urgent fact finding exercise was undertaken to see exactly what’top’ restaurants actually served in the’escargots’ line, who were their suppliers and where did they get their snails. The results are very interesting and did not involve the use of any’native’ wild-caught H. pomatia.

This implies that some provision was made to accommodate restaurateurs. Indeed on the same page Dr. Willing refers only to protection for “wild caught Roman Snails” (my emphasis). However there is no evidence in the legislation that this is the case – it prohibits ‘selling, offering for sale, possessing or transporting for the purpose of sale (live or dead animal, part or derivative)’. That seems to cover selling escargots very clearly. Other edible species protected by the Act, such as crayfish, apparently have no such exemption. Nor are any of the general licences which are issued by Natural England relevant. This would be a simple way to provide an exemption if one were thought appropriate. So, what is the legal situation? The legislation in general is supposed to relate only to’wild animals’, but in any proceedings the animal in question is presumed to have been a wild animal unless the contrary is shown. It’s not clear how this could be applied here without venturing into the fanciful – are there snail breeding registers, or are all snails ringed? Very unlikely. It also seems unlikely that the new order was made with the intention of preventing H. pomatia from abroad being consumed on English plates, or indeed like Vanessa’s pets, from simply being kept for pleasure. Furthermore the fact that the matter was clearly considered, and resolved to the satisfaction of both DEFRA and the Conchological Society suggests that it’s been sorted out. What’s more, whatever the intent clearly the new law has not prevented people from openly selling escargot to English customers, as is shown here. It’s a bit of a mystery. The Ranger intends to write to Natural England’s Wildlife Management and Licensing team and ask if they can explain how the law works in this situation. Update: Indeed, Natural England have responded with an imprsssively prompt and full explanation. They confirm that, as suspected, captive-bred snails fall outside the Act; and explain why. Stuart Miller of Natural England’s Wildlife Management & Licensing Service writes to Vanessa:

The Wildlife and Countryside Act gives protection to certain’wild animals’. A wild animal is defined as any animal which is or (before it was killed or taken) was living wild. Clearly therefore the increased protection to Helix pomatia does not extend to any captive bred snails. The Wildlife and Countryside Act only provides legal protection for acts within the UK. Where snails have been taken from outside the UK and brought into this country then they would not be covered under the Act. A licence is therefore not required to possess live (or dead) Roman snails unless they have been taken from the wild in the UK in contravention of the provisions of the Act. The legislation under Section 9(6) of the Wildlife & Countryside Act states that in any proceeding for an offence the animal in question shall be presumed to have been a wild animal unless the contrary is shown. Therefore it would be advisable to keep some evidence to prove that snails are captive bred i.e. receipt of purchase. Unless there is a proceeding for an offence there is no onus to prove they are captive bred. Common sense dictates that where captive bred snails are being legitimately held then the increased protection for wild Roman snails should have no direct impact on this activity.

It’s still not clear how one should prove that any given snail was indeed captive bred – after all, if they are bred then they’ll have no receipt, and a wild snail would look just like a captive one. Perhaps Stuart Miller hinted at the true answer in his final paragraph: common sense suggests that even if technically there might be an issue at stake, surely nobody really would bring a prosecution in such circumstances?

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

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