The Secret Lives and Lore of British Land and Freshwater Molluscs


Giles Watson

The Fighting Snail

Two tailors took a walk one spring

Outside in the garden.

The first one cried out, “Gods defend us!”

The other one said, “Pardon?”

“Oh! We are doomed!” the first one groaned,

“Oh! Doomed!” did he bewail,

For on the ground in front of them

There sat a slimy snail.


Helix pomacea and aspersa!

Things are getting worse, and worser!

Nemoralis and hortensis,

Sliding o’er the garden fences!

Grim pulchella, aculeata,

Rupestris foul, and rotundata!

It’s drizzling, there is no sun!

Oh! Horrors! My heart fails!

The garden has been overrun

By marauding SNAILS!

“Oh Cripes!” the second tailor screamed,

“Oh what a fearful sight!”

While with his pin the first one stabbed

The horrid hermaphrodite.

“Go—go away!” the second said

With a nervous stutter,

Or my friend will have your foot

Sauteed in garlic butter!”

But still the snail sat in its shell;

It didn’t even blink.

“If we’re defeated by a snail,

What will the neighbours think?”

The first one poked it with his scissors,

The second with a knife,

But sorely tempted were the men

To run for dear life.

And then the snail stuck out its head;

The tailors blenched with fright,

For they had jousted ne’er before

With a snail in all its might.

“Oh we will call on thrushes all

To come down in a flock,

And smash your shell to smithereens

Against a piece of rock!”

But slimily the snail advanced,

(It was not in a hurry),

And both the tailors’ sweaty brows

Were quite furrowed with worry.

Its foot began to undulate;

Its horns waved in the air,

And its eyes came out on stalks

The tailors for to scare.

Then the tailors ran like hell;

They even pooed their britches:

It dribbled halfway down their legs

And oozed out from the stitches.

And still the snail lumbered on,

Undaunted by the foe,

The tailors hid inside their house

And cried aloud with woe.

Then up rode bold Sir Ponsonby

Upon his charging steed;

He really was a dashing sight,

The tailors both agreed.

His lance he pointed at its shell,

His sword aimed at its heart,

Sir Ponsonby cried, “Snail, prepare,

This world to depart!”

But then the knight stopped in his tracks,

He gave an awful start,

For the snail had taken careful aim

And shot him with a dart.

He swooned amid the cabbage patch;

His palfrey ran away,

And loudly all the slugs proclaimed

The snail had won the day.

Source material. Snails such as Helix aspersa fire darts at each other in amorous rituals before mating. Many medieval carvings, such as one on a misericord in Beverley Minster, depict knights and other men in combat with snails.

Giles Watson (2005)

Black Slug (Arion ater)

When I was young, I’ll have you know,

I was gleaming yellowish white,

But now I have reached adulthood,

I’m black as the dark-mooned night.

I gobble all the mouldy leaves

In the garden bed you dug:

They help to keep me sleek and slick,

For I’m a bold black slug.

Plant a field of cabbages

For making sauerkraut;

I’ll strip ’em all to skeletons

For yards and yards about.

The way you swear, you’d think that I

Was just some loutish thug—

I’m not! My taste’s impeccable

For I’m a bold black slug.

And when the garden is all bare

And molluscs all grow lean,

While you rest, I do my best

To keep the garden clean,

Or come inside and leave a trail

Across your mohair rug—

’Twill look sublime marked with slime

For I’m a bold black slug.

I know I am a cannibal—

But that isn’t why you hate me:

I’ll eat phonebooks, dog shit too;

That’s not why you berate me.

I suspect my name is mud

Because it rhymes with ugh.

Be off! I’ll wag my head at you!

I am a bold black slug.

Source material. Arion ater is one of the commonest slugs in British gardens. The young are pale in colour, but gradually darken with age, starting with the tentacles. Black slugs will eat almost anything, including each other, and when the Yellow Pages are delivered on doorsteps, it is a well known fact that black slugs race the householder for them, as if hurrying for a gourmet meal. When frightened, a black slug will hunch itself up like a hedgehog, but when irritated, it will lift the front portion of its body off the ground, and waggle it furiously from side to side. The effect when two or more slugs are gathered is likely to be comical, as Lionel E. Adams (The Collector’s Manual of British Land and Freshwater Shells, Leeds, 1896, p. 24) observes: “It is ludicrous to see half-a-dozen of the creatures wagging together.”

Giles Watson (2005)

Hedgehog Slug (Arion intermedius)

A most interesting little slug,

Coloured like muddy honey.

Sits hunched and bristling

Like a furrowed brow

Smeared with a perfect

Touch of slime.

Source material. Arion intermedius (Arion minimus) was recognised by Dr Scharff (Journal of Conchology, Vol. vi., p. 267, October 1890) as a separate species from Arion ater, with which it was previously confused. Both species have the habit of hunching themselves like hedgehogs. Scharff observed: “The wrinkles on the body form the chief characteristic of this interesting little slug.”

Giles Watson (2005)

Spotted Slug (Geomalacus maculosus)

A very particular slug: lives

at one thousand feet of altitude

in remote parts of County Kerry

and of Portugal. Particular,

too, in its diet: eats one

or perhaps two species

of lichen.

Embodies the cliché:

You are what you eat.

White and yellow

Fruiting bodies

Bloom beneath its skin.

Source material. Geomalachus maculosus was discovered “in Kerry, near Lough Caragh, by William Andrews. Dr. Scharff has taken it at Darrynane, in the extreme west of Ireland, up to an elevation of 1,000 feet, and also at Castletown, Berehaven, near Glengariff, and at Cork. Besides the above British localities, it is only known to exist in Portugal. Dr. Scharff says:– ‘The dark grey lichens [on which it feeds] with the white and yellow fructification conceal the slug perfectly, and there is no doubt that we have here a most striking instance of protective colouring.’” Lionel E. Adams, The Collector’s Manual of British Land and Freshwater Shells, Leeds, 1896, p. 30.

Giles Watson (2005)

Tree Slug (Lehmannia marginata)

It is a long, sluggish climb

For an inverted view of the world.

Suspended in slug slime

Swinging beneath a branch

Like a chandelier made

Of mucus.

Source material. Lehmannia (Limax) marginata, asserts Lionel E. Adams, The Collector’s Manual of British Land and Freshwater Shells, Leeds, 1896, p.37, “has the habit of climbing trees, and is said to suspend itself from a branch by a thread of mucus”.

Giles Watson (2005)

Snail Slug (Testacella spp.)

Bears a pert little shell

Right on its rump:

You can see the pulsing

Veins leading under it.

Will not eat dead flesh:

Only other, living slugs.

Source material. All slugs have rudimentary shells, often hidden underneath the mantle, but Testacella species have a small external shell, forming a link between the “naked” slugs and fully-shelled snails. They are voracious carnivores, eating other species of slug by preference.

Giles Watson (2005)

Transparent Snail (Vitrina pellucida)

Carries his home with him,

Yet cannot enter; mantled

Partly over when on the move.

His guts pulse, his breathing

Visible, in a bubble

Of green glass.

All the workings

Of the miracle

Made manifest.

Source material. Vitrina pellucida carries a small shell, but cannot retract its body within it. The shell itself is transparent, so that “Under a lens, or even with the naked eye, the operation of breathing can be observed.” Lionel E. Adams, The Collector’s Manual of British Land and Freshwater Shells, Leeds, 1896, pp. 43–44.

Giles Watson (2005)

Garlic Snail (Oxychilus alliarius)

No Ramsons here, no Jack-by-the-Hedge,

Nor three-cornered-leeks crushed underfoot,

No grass snake disturbed and writhing,

Yet the smell of garlic assails me,

From under a turned stone.

                                          Too small, surely,

This snail, to raise such a pother?

Source material. Oxychilus alliarius (Hyalina allaria) is named after its chief distinguishing feature. The smell of garlic is often detected before the snail is discovered. Other snails in the Hyalina genus occasionally carry the same aroma, as do the other organisms mentioned in the poem.

Giles Watson (2005)

Spiny Snail (Acanthinula aculeata)

The spines, in this case,

Serve not to defend

By pricking or by thrusting,

But by accumulating dirt.

You are looking straight at him

But do not see him:

You think him a little clod.

Source material. Acanthinula (Helix) aculeata is one of the smaller snails of its genus, and the only one which bears spines on its shell.

Giles Watson (2005)

Roman Snail (Helix pomatia)

Escapees, perhaps, from the Cochlearium,

Where they grew tired of being fed on vine leaves,

Bran and sodden wine, operculate snails

Persist near Roman villas, smaller, perhaps

Than their pampered forebears, now that they

Subsist on nettles. Varro knew some, so he claimed,

Whose shells would hold ten quarts, which gives

The lie to inflated reports of the abstemiousness

Of Pliny, who dined on barley cake, a lettuce,

Two eggs, sweet wine, three snails, and snow.

Can you envisage? Portly snails, fearing the platter,

Suspecting they are being fattened for the Bacchanalia,

Make their bid for freedom. Silver trails span

The tessaries, on their way towards the door.

Source material. Helix pomatia, a Roman delicacy, was certainly imported to Britain by them, and still persists in the regions of Roman settlements. Archaeological remains demonstrate that pre-Roman warriors also enjoyed these snails, and the native Helix aspersa, but the Romans appear to have developed snail-tending into a fine art. The references to Varro and Pliny are adapted from Thomas Pennant, British Zoology, 4th Edition, iv, p. 135, cited in Arthur Erskine Ellis, British Snails: the Non-Marine Gastropoda of Great Britain and Ireland, Oxford, 1969, pp. 233–234. The specific name of this snail is derived from the fact that it forms an operculum-like concretion which it secretes from the mantle before hibernation. The assumption that it relates to apples (hence the common name Apple Snail) is erroneous, as it is not derived from the Latin pomum (an apple), but from the Greek poma (an operculum).

Giles Watson (2005)

Whirlpool Snail (Anisus vortex)

Perfection nestled in your palm:

A shell smaller than your littlest

Fingernail, crammed with whorls

Like a cinnamon scroll in miniature.

And, since the creature has departed

You come away from the ditch

Still bearing it; buy a wooden box

For it, treasure it like a jewel.

Source material. Anisus (Planorbis) vortex is a beautiful little aquatic snail with a flattened shell.

Giles Watson (2005)

Grove Snail (Cepaea nemoralis)

Thrushes make cairns of them,

Stoving them in at the apex,

Thrashing them against stones.

The striated, fractured shells remain

For months afterwards, piled

Testimonies to habitual breakfasts.

Fastidious bank voles are more

Circumspect, nibbling holes

In the sides, sucking out

The writhing jelly, tasting

With a wrinkled nose, wiping

Their wimples afterwards.

Source material. Cepaea (Helix) nemoralis is, of course, not the only mollusc which falls victim to thrushes and voles, but it is certainly one of the more conspicuous.

Giles Watson (2005)

Blind Snail (Ceciloides acicula)

If you want it, you will have to dig for it,

Or turn loose limestone at the pavement edges.

You might possibly wait until it dies,

Washes down some rill into a river,

And is stranded on some shore. When

You have found one, remember,

You have only achieved this by cheating:

You have been using a sense

The hairpin snail has ceased to possess.

Source material. Ceciloides acicula has an entirely subterranean lifestyle, and is completely blind.

Giles Watson (2005)

Bubble Shell (Physa fontinalis)

Suction holds it there, perpendicular in water

Slung from the surface: a spread thread

Of mucus, a wet stem of a wineglass

Drawn out like a wire. Tramline

For a bubble shell. Woe betide

All interlopers: they will be engaged

In single combat. In my fishtank

Rivals meet on the bridge between

Meniscus and stone, brandishing weapons,

Like Robin Hood and Little John.

Source material. Physa fontinalis travels about underwater with the aid of trails of mucus which it suspends between the surface and the bottom. The snail is very possessive of its own mucus trail, and two snails meeting on the same trail will invariably fight.

Giles Watson (2005)

River Snail (Viviparus spp.)

Little hairy things

With spiral ridges

Studded with spines,


Fully formed.

Radulae in miniscule,

Sharp for sawing


Source material. Viviparus viviparous and Viviparus fasciatus give birth to live young, equipped with protective spines and hairs. The latter disappear as the snail approaches maturity. See Arthur Erskine Ellis, British Snails, p. 84.

Giles Watson (2005)

Pearl Mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera)

So that is why Caesar invaded Britain:

Reports of the freshwater pearls had been

Somewhat exaggerated. Venus Genetrix

Must have smiled a little lopsidedly

At his buckler, dedicated to her,

Studded with freshwater pearls.

Very possibly, Caesar was deceived.

Source material. Margaritifera (Unio) margartifera occasionally yields pearls, but they are comparatively small and worthless. “Suetonius says that Caesar was partly attracted to Britain by the reports of pearls found there, and Pliny states that he covered a buckler with them, which he dedicated to Venus Genetrix.” Lionel E. Adams, Land and Freshwater Shells, pp. 149–150.

Giles Watson (2005)

Snail Sense

Begin with a skin that can feel light,

And is sensitive to drying, will shrink

From excess of heat or cold.

Tentacles for feeling and smelling,

Capable of retraction, like a finger

Withdrawing from a rubber glove.

Blurry images conveyed by eyes:

Little periods, terminating stalks

Inflated by excess blood.

Snails feel in full technicolour,

Their skin is moist, ripe for arousal

Like a lip after licking.

Source material. Arthur Erskine Ellis, British Snails, Oxford, 1969, p. 13.

Giles Watson (2005)

Snail Broth

“Like cures like,” the Ancients say;

I oftentimes have proved it,

For when the ill was pulmonary

’Twas lungwort that removed it.

Eyebright makes them glisten so,

And figwort makes the piles go:

Culpepper has proved it.

But when an ill is serious,

You’d best make the assumption

That you need a recipe

That has a bit more gumption:

The cure for any bloody cough

Is nearly always snail broth,

The one thing for consumption.

Gather up as many snails

As neatly fill a basket—

You wonder what to do with them?

I marvel that you ask it!

Boil them in a metal drum

And drink them down with all the scum:

’Twill save you from the casket.

If, after that, you spit more blood,

Go, gather yet more snails,

And grind them up with purslain—

Hold them by their tails—

Dried tobacco, orris too,

Violets purple, borage blue

(This one never fails);

Scabious lungwort, annis seeds,

And saffron (just a dash),

Lots of liquorice eclampane

Dropped in with a splash,

A pinch or two of annis seeds,

Scabious lungwort and other weeds:

Boil well, and mash.

The blood of one fresh-slaughtered hog

The flower of one red rose,

A dram of good ground ivy juice

(Repulsive to the nose),

Annis seeds, and also cotton,

Paul’s betony, fresh and never rotten—

You’d best add some of those.

And last, for just a touch of class,

Ambrosia, and white wine;

Steep the lot for three long days,

Distil it nine times nine.

Decant, sniff well, and then imbibe;

Words will fail to describe

How well they all combine.

The sluggish snail, of colour grey,

To touch is clammy, wan,

From horn to tail appears to ail,

Is grim to look upon.

My doctrine you will soon confirm

Or else, you’re bound to feed the worm

When all the mixture’s gone.

Source material. Culpepper, cited by Mary Lewis, ‘Witchcraft and Wizardry in Wales’, from The Queer Side of Things, (1923). See

Giles Watson (2005)


Snails mate in clumps, archetypes

Of the Divine Androgyne, slaves

To their own ovotestes, sliming

One another with love. Turgid

Penises wrapped with wet vaginas

In mutual courtesies.


Earth horses, faerie kine,

Wrestle in giving and taking

Pleasure, seasoning it

With pain.

                 Their shells,

Little whorled fetishes, slung

On string, with hollow rattles

Across a tempting cleavage,

Make us fertile, fecund

As the earth, from whence

They came. A girl, wanting

A man she cannot have,

Cherishes a shell between

Her breasts until it is worn

And warm; slips it into

His hand: a declaration

Of indelicate desire.

Source material. Charles Godfrey Leland, Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling, (1891), Chapter V. (See Gypsies believe that the snail is the only invertebrate to win the favour of earth faeries, and call it the Gry-puvusengree, or earthy horse. They are equated with cows in both gypsy and English peasant folklore, on account of their horns. The voluptuous disposition of snails has long been recognised; this is enhanced by the fact that most species of snail are hermaphroditic, and are capable of both giving and receiving sperm in the same act of coition. Both gypsies and Cornish witches are fond of making charms by stringing snail shells together to form a necklace (an example may be seen in the Museum of Witchcraft at Boscastle, Cornwall); aspiring gypsy seductresses also make use of single shells as love-charms. See

Giles Watson (2005)