Snail farming: what it involves and how to do it

How to start off on the right foot

Inspirations / How to

06/06/2024

Estimated reading time 5 minutes

The scientific term for snail farming is heliciculture which means "cultivation of helicids", a family of molluscs to which snails belong. In practice, it refers to the breeding and rearing of edible snails for human consumption.

This niche form of farming originated in the Seventies and has since seen exponential growth, including in terms of theoretical knowledge, practical expertise, diffusion and sales turnover. Here in Italy, we have very favourable conditions for this type of activity. Snails are farmed for their meat, eggs, shells and slime, so snail farming has numerous market outlets, not only in the catering and food industry, but also in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical sectors. In this article we provide an overview of how to farm snails according to the outdoor, full natural cycle approach, and how to get started in this business.

What does heliciculture involve?

How do you breed snails? There are several techniques: outdoor or indoor breeding, full or partial cycle, natural or intensive, and even traditional, organic and soilless. Here in Italy, most snail farming businesses adopt the outdoor, full natural cycle approach. This means that they breed snails throughout their entire life cycle – from birth to fattening – and not solely during the fattening phase. They also raise snails on open ground rather than in a greenhouse, as happens in colder climates (in France, for example). They feed the snails with vegetables grown onsite, whereas in intensive heliciculture, concentrated feed is used. Over the years, heliciculturists have developed various methods of breeding snails, based on shared guidance and hands-on experience.

A snail farm is a fenced area that is protected from predators and provides the molluscs with an optimal habitat. It essentially replicates the conditions that they prefer in the wild: an appropriate environment where they can survive, thrive and, if necessary, take refuge underground; a climate and humidity suitable for their well-being; and vegetation that offers food and shelter.

A farm is typically divided into rectangular pens (also called hutch boxes or snaileries), surrounded by escape-proof mesh and separated from each other by ungrassed paths or serviceways. The snails live in the pens, feeding on vegetation that is specially sown and grown for them to graze on. An irrigation system maintains the right level of humidity, especially in summer months. You will also need to set aside additional space to grow leafy greens for supplementary feeding.

In full-cycle breeding, the breeding system is initiated by purchasing breeding snails and introducing them into the pens in spring/early summer. Within a few weeks the reproduction phase begins, followed by egg laying and hatching. Later, once the breeding snails’ reproductive capacity is exhausted, they are collected and sold.

Baby snails hatch out of the eggs and undergo a fattening period, which continues until winter hibernation and resumes when spring arrives. The next reproduction cycle is started by selecting more breeding snails from among the newly mature snails in the fattening area. The remainder are left to grow until the edge of their shell opening hardens and develops a lip, indicating that they have reached adulthood and are ready for breeding. Once the lip is fully formed, the adult snails are collected by hand and must undergo a purging period before being sold and consumed.

In the case of partial-cycle (also called incomplete- or short-cycle) heliciculture, there is only a fattening area but no reproduction area, and baby snails are placed in the pens rather than breeding snails.

Snail breeding times depend on the length of their life cycle. In this regard, Helix aspersa is preferred over other species because it is fast-growing, adaptable and very prolific. There are no surprises for guessing that it is the species most commonly found on Italian snail farms.

How to start breeding snails

You can breed snails professionally to make money, or as a hobby, if you like growing your own food. By setting up a small amateur breeding farm you can also see whether heliciculture is for you and has the potential to expand into a worthwhile business. Professional and amateur operations differ in terms of scale – size, costs, time requirements – and production and financial targets, but the guiding principles for setting up and running a snail farm are similar.

To start a snail farm you need a sunny plot, preferably with no trees nearby. The soil needs to have certain characteristics: most importantly, it mustn't be contaminated by pollutants. It is essential to have a readily available supply of water that is not too saline: you can draw it from a well, watercourse or rainwater harvesting system, using a water pump if necessary. To ensure sufficient quality of the soil and water, you may need to have them analysed.

If the site is covered by vegetation or overgrown with brambles, you’ll need to clear it and then plough the soil, remove stones and divide the area into functional zones. Build a perimeter fence, then hutches for the snails, interspersed with walkways, and finally install the irrigation system, which can be rainwater or sprinkler-based, but not a drip system or one that allows standing water to accumulate.

Inside the hutch boxes, the soil must be tilled and fertilised, then sown with vegetation for the snails to feed on, such as chard and chicory. Soil tilling – with a rotary tiller or two wheel tractor – and sowing are activities that need to be repeated every year, or whenever the pens are prepared in readiness for introducing new breeding snails. In the hottest months of summer, mow the vegetation around the fences with a brushcutter, so that it grows back and regenerates, while also preventing the buildup of slime.

If the farming method you have chosen involves supplementary feeding, also prepare the soil of plots for sowing and cultivating the necessary crops (such as sunflowers).

Snail farming: non-technical aspects

Before setting up a snail farm, we advise you to read up on the subject, study the different approaches, familiarise yourself with the biology of snails and the characteristics of edible species, and do some research on the snail market.

If you intend to turn it into a full-time business, it is essential to "do the maths" and understand where you stand with regard to regulations and tax requirements, so that you don't full foul of the rules. Doing the maths means realistically evaluating economic and financial aspects, calculating the costs of your initial investment – on land, building work, materials, equipment, breeding snails, etc. – and annual costs, such as seeds and labour. In addition to equipment for working the land and mowing, your costs might also include the purchase of a transporter for moving heavy materials and bulky loads. You also need to think about how to finance your start-up: with savings, by taking out a loan, or applying for business grants and subsidies?

Last but not least, you’ll need to estimate your revenue, based on which products you decide to sell (from live snails to snail-based specialities), your target market (end consumers, restaurateurs, companies and so on) and your chosen sales channels (direct sales, wholesalers or other).

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