Snail Success in Ireland

Eva Milka came to Ireland by accident in the middle of a tourism degree in her native Poland when her then boyfriend suggested she join him in a job interview for the newly opened Lyrath hotel in Kilkenny.  She got the job while he did not, and so she cast aside her degree to work in Ireland much to her parent’s disappointment.

‘It just felt it was the right thing to do,’ says Eva. ‘ We moved over and settled into Ireland but the one delicacy we could not find was escargot snails – so we set up a mini breeding farm using plastic containers in our one bedroom apartment in Kilkenny.’

The love of snails only grew and now Eva is looking for other pioneering spirits to join her in the growing snail business.

‘Four years ago my partner and I decided to look at farming snails professionally,’ says Eva. ‘We took one year to conduct research and development, the second to set up our infrastructure and for the last two years we have streamlined snail production, found distributors and are now looking at value added products through a processing plant in Greece.’

‘There are no facilities to do it here in Ireland,’ she explains. ‘In fact, we had to learn everything from scratch in Ireland as nobody had done it successfully before.’

Eva and her partner Eoin are now on a mission to help other would-be farmers setup their own snail farms. ‘We have done the hard work and can now provide a step by step guide for other people wishing to enter this industry,’ she says.

Diversification in farming is the way forward. A recent Teagas report from 2016 offers stark reading when it comes to viable farming incomes. There are 130,000 registered farmers of which 50,000 do not even make €8,000 a year.

‘An acre will raise a cow,’ says Eva. ‘But that same acre can raise 10 tonnes of snails at a market value of approximately €40,000. It is not a difficult sell.’

‘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.’

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 1.2 million snails and produce 10 tonnes 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. 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 from 10am until 4pm. 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 10tons 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 25% of stock). Annual costs include feed, electricity, labour and maintenance and can be in the region of €17,000.

Baby snails cost 11 cent per thousand while mature breeding adults cost between 10 and15 cent per animal. Between 25 and 30 thousand breeders are required to populate an acre.

Sales of 10 tonnes 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 no body 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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Sometimes a Farmer needs a nurse

First ran in Farm Ireland on June 5, 2017

Four years ago, the HSE in conjunction with the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF) ran a pilot to provide a free heart health check for farmers in their shared place of work, the Mart. The pilot was initially met with some resistance and suspicion according to Marese Damery, health check manager with the IHF.

‘Farmers were reluctant to agree to appointments,’ she said. ‘Some were in fear of what it might cost, although we explained it was free, and others were in fear of what they might discover medically.’

The IHF is a charity and is 93% funded through public donations. The remainder comes in the way of government funds of which the HSE is partially responsible. Most years the charity screens in excess of 15,000 people across the country in communities, institutions and corporates. There is a panel of 26 nurses sourced from across the country and one mobile unit recently purchased to travel to more remote areas.

‘The idea of checking farmers in marts was genius,’ says Marese. ‘It made sense to reach out to more isolated members of society, especially as recent census figures shows the growing number of male, elderly farmers living alone. We wanted to see if we could make a positive impact on their health.’

The first step was to persuade marts around the country to open their doors to the visiting nursing staff. Auctioneers such as Joe Kinsella at Baltinglass Mart in Co Wicklow, was an early convert. ‘Working in a mart you can see the importance of the social aspect to our customers,’ says Joe. ‘Sometimes the bit of food and banter in the canteen, or simply the comradery before and after the live auction, is as important as the actual sale. In fact, many regulars come even when they are not buying or selling – they come for the company and the social aspect,’ he says.

The attendance of the nurses is well flagged before their day in the mart and some appointments made in advance but the majority of farmers are encouraged to attend opportunistically.

‘Some men can be shy,’ says Marese. ‘They can give excuses that they need to change out of their work clothes but if possible we just get them to wash their hands so we can to do the pin-prick cholesterol test.’

Each farmer is a given a full half hour with the nurse. In addition to checking for vital statistics for risk of cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), the men are also questioned about their lifestyle, alcohol consumption and perceived levels of stress.

‘Our surveys held in the first two years of the project show that farmers are not as healthy as one might imagine,’ says Marese. ‘The introduction of quads and modern equipment means they were not as active as they thought. In addition, farmers tend to have late meals and large portions. All in all it combines to make the majority of men surveyed fit into the obese category.’

In one self-assessed measure on stress the majority of farmers, more than 60%, professed to being stressed some of the time while more than 16% felt stressed most of the time.

Joe is very keen to see the IHF visit his mart and while at the beginning they only had two clinics a year now they host four clinics annually to be able to offer a greater reach within the farming community.

‘It is well known that men, especially older men, are reluctant to visit the doctor,’ says Joe. ‘Add to that the rural l isolation and the peaks and troughs of the cattle and sheep market prices and sometimes farmers allow these trends to affect their health and wellbeing. And for many the mart might be their main social interaction during week.’

During the course of the health checks over the past four years almost 4,000 farmers have been checked in 43 different marts in 22 countries. This has proven vital as 77% of men surveyed were found to have 3 or more CVD risk factors based on objective measured health outcomes from the heart health checks. However, when the non-measured, self-reported health risks were added in, a startling 80.7% of farmers had four or more CVD risk factors.

In fact, more than 79.2% of farmers surveyed were advised to visit their GP as a result of the screening.

‘Our health check can be vital,’ says Marese. ‘Farmers are at high risk of being impacted by CVD conditions, but the good news is that by taking action they can reduce their risk by introducing new lifestyle measures. CVD is 80% preventable.’

Another important component of the Health Check is the tying up with local services pertinent to each region. ‘We try and make sure our nurses are as local as possible,’ says Marese. ‘Then we make sure that we can provide details on local services, link in with the local GP, find out where the nearest Men’s Shed is located and provide information on other supports such the HSE funded Rural Farmers Stress helpline.

‘There is a lot of help out there but sometimes a farmer needs some guidance,’ says Marese. ‘Sometimes a farmer needs a nurse.’

To find where your nearest Health Check is taking place, please click here 

What the Nurses Say:

Matt Malone having his medical checkup in Nenagh Mart








Linda Kidd is a nurse with the IHF and has been working with the Healthy Heart Check since 2005. With a background in farming and also now married to a farmer, her rural experience is important in her work. She stresses at the outset though that she does not remember individual cases, that everything is confidential.

‘Men’s experiences of doctors are very different from women’s,’ she explains. ‘Across the board – regardless of occupation. Women tend to visit their GP as an adult for family planning advice, then if they get pregnant they visit the GP throughout the pregnancy and afterwards as they bring their baby in for the different injections and developmental checks. Thereafter, it is most often the mother who brings a sick child to the doctor, so they develop a relationship with them. Men don’t and as a consequence have a great fear of doctors, rather like the stereotypical fear of dentists regardless of gender.

‘In addition, farmers being self-employed are very busy, says Linda. ‘With my farming background I can understand what type of farming they are doing and be also be suggest making an appointment to see a doctor when things ease up.’

Linda also explains that farmers arriving into the mart can be very stressful. ‘Perhaps the animals have been collected at 6am, there is a lot of paperwork required and it has to be in order for the animals to proceed to sale. When the farmer agrees to see us, we also try to find out how they are.  One of the questions is about stress. A majority of farmers are very stressed and if we feel it is appropriate then we suggest they visit their GP.

‘Mostly the advice we give is medical,’ though she says.

On occasion Linda has met women in the clinic. Sometimes they might be farmers in their own right, sometimes farmer’s wives with a more indoor lifestyle. ‘We have found they are also less healthy than women of the same age in a different profession. Farming is a tough physical career. It can be cold and wet outside. When people come indoors they want food and they want it fast,’ says Linda. ‘This can lead to a culture of comfort food.’

Another delusion might be that a farmer thinks because they are outside all day they are healthy. ‘However, perhaps they are checking the herd which calls for a lot of observation and leaning over gates to check on animals,’ says Linda. ‘No farmer is going to rush into the middle of a field and potentially scare the animals. So I often suggest to a farmer to head out at the start of the day and walk the fastest they can to their furthest field. And from there to walk slowly back and check their animals as they go. At the IHF we suggest a brisk walk of about 30 minutes five times a week. This is one way of increasing exercise.’

There is one other area where farmers and farm hands suffer and that is diet. ‘In a previous generation, farmers and farm labourers would work on a farm and be fed by the woman of the house. This doesn’t happen anymore so the farmer and labourer head off to the nearest chipper for lunch,’ says Linda. ‘Again this is not healthy or beneficial for the farmers.’

As part of the IHF Linda encourages farmers to get out walk.  ‘If they bringing their children to GAA training or similar I suggest they walk the pitch rather than chat on the side line. At the end of the day being out in the open and in the fresh air is great but farmers need to get more exercise,’ she says.

Finally Linda makes one more cogent observation. ‘Before foot and mouth there were a lot of callers to farms – people delivering seed, products, provisions. That stopped during the scare and has largely not resumed. As a result there are very few callers to farms. If you are a single or widowed farmer living on your own there is no one calling anymore. And that can have huge negative impacts.’