Peter Monaghan of Inis Escargot near Virginia estimates he'll harvest between 800,000 and 1.2 million snails this year.
One would wrongly assume life on a snail farm, nestled in the sleepy shadow of Bruse Hill, would represent life in the slow lane. Quite the opposite, this niche farming concept is rapidly evolving to meet an ever increasing global demand.
Peter Monaghan of Inis Escargot, breeds, rears and finishes Hélix Aspersa Muller (also known as Petit Gris), a snail native to Ireland on his free-range farm near Maghera. For the past two years the 36-year-old former transport manager has turned to farming the shelled gastropod full-time.
“It’s so surprising snail farming isn’t bigger in Ireland,” laments Peter. “You’ve a creature, one of the tastiest, healthiest foods you’ll get, yet there’s nothing to support [the sector].”
There’s clearly untapped potential for the sector as it has an average yearly shortfall of 100,000 tonnes of snail meat in Europe alone, and just one acre produces up to 10 tonnes of escargots annually.
Lack of recognition for heliciculture, doesn’t bother Peter as much as it once did. To him the buy-in remains a “no-brainer”, and Peter is eager to share his expertise with anyone interested joining the state’s tiny crop of about 30 established snail farmers.
“I’d love to see the likes of us, established farms making a success of it, used to help push snail farming forward. There’s huge potential in Ireland, for part-time, or full-time, and a man like me who wants to keep his few sucklers but needs an additional income.”
Self-confessed “home-bird” Peter shunned opportunities to leave Cavan in his younger years, on scholarships or offers through football, having played with Ramor and for county, in favour of “making a go” at being a farmer.
He inherited his holding stretching back to a tributary flowing into nearby Lough Ramor, and followed in his late father’s footsteps into managing a herd of around 20 sucklers.
Peter has all but “transformed” that operation, keeping only Belgian Blue Limousins producing ‘E’ or a “very strong” ‘U’ grade calves that he sells before reaching 350 kilos.
“At the moment I’ve everything up, definitely getting over €4 per kg, but averaging closer to €5 per kg the last two years for my weanlings. The longer I hold on to them the less profit I get. I’m happy with the system I’ve got. It’s not making me rich, but it’s not costing me anything either.”
As far as the ambitious and enterprising Peter can remember, he’s always felt he was destined to “do more”.
“Even though I love it, I never saw a sustainable income from suckler farming only. I was banging my head against a wall for years, looking at forestry, at fruit, I looked at vegetables. Nothing cut it.”
Around 2013-14 consciousness of snail farming in Ireland changed. A year later Peter began his own research. It included a trip to Spain, where his primary focus was exploring what markets were available. “I was only a couple of days in[to his research] and to see the gap there was like a light switch flicked.”
The shortfall for Hélix Aspersa Muller, one of the three most popular species on the market, has grown by a further 4.5% since 2016.
Peter admits it’s “easy to get distracted” eye-balling the headline figures associated with the proverbial ‘golden egg’ of snail farming: the caviar. It’s a luxury food item where an ounce can cost as much as $70 when retailed.
Peter’s objective starting off, though, was to build his operation sustainably.
Like many growers, Peter followed a direct trail to Eva Milka’s in Carlow. Pioneering snail farming in Ireland for almost a decade, Eva has managed to both build her brand Gaelic Escargot, and turn the business into a livelihood.
“She’s the only place you can go. You look in Europe, [the information is] there, but really, what of that applies to farming in Ireland is very limited.”
Peter relied on Eva’s guidance for setting up his initial infrastructure, converting a shed into a perfectly contained breeding room, complete with incubation chamber and several rows of breeding tables. His biggest investment to date has been a heat recovery conditioning unit.
The snail growing season starts early January, with infant snails fed forage rape and a high-cost calcium powder mix.
This year Peter estimates having between 800,000 and 1.2 million snails.
“You’ve 20 cows, and you run the bull with them, you’d be hoping at least 19 of those are in calf. It’s the exact same set of principles, basic economics.”
Around March the hatchlings are moved to a large nearby polytunnel, where they start maturation.
“I absolutely love them,” says Peter, picking up one meaty mollusc. The snail immediately retracts its antennae but soon braves the dramatic change in circumstances and begins feeling its way across Peter’s outstretched finger.
“They’re nocturnal. I’ll come in here around 8pm, water them, sprinkle the feed. It’s so rewarding to come in here the next morning and see the whole lot cleared.”
From May, when it is warm enough outside, Peter has marked out part of an adjacent acre covered with bird netting and planted in sections with rapeseed. The snails move to and remain there until harvesting towards the end of September, which is done by hand and is labour intensive.
“You’re talking five tonne of snails for half an acre, a full acre is 10 tonne, all in buckets.”
Bordering the Inis Escargot snail farm is land planted by Coillte, not that Peter’s complaining.
“You wouldn’t believe the wildlife that comes out of that. We’ve buzzards as well, which are great because they keep away all the ground pests, rats and mice.”
For export, the snails are hibernated in a chiller, bagged and tagged.
Through “sheer trial and error” Peter has moved his business forward, to a point where he now finds himself at a crossroads, trading between ramping up production or divesting his energies to other potentially lucrative sidelines, like selling his snails directly to Irish restaurants (minimum of €50+ per kg) or to other farmers (three times the value).
Peter found a much higher mortality rate (from egg to finishing stage and prior to sale), of 20% and upwards, among breeding snails he imported compared to those he has bred himself.
“I have it down to under three per cent. Buying baby snails all the time wasn’t realistic; money could be saved if the whole thing is done right from the start.”
According to research published in 2020, baby snails cost 11c per thousand while mature breeding adults cost between 10c and 15c per animal. Those figures, for guidance, suggested sales of 10 tonne of snails could achieve approximately €40,000, with gross profit of €20,000.
As it stands the married father-of-two says he benefits from an “above average” annual industrial wage thanks to his Inis Escargot efforts, and firmly believes “with the way global warming is going” that snail farming is going to take a “massive shift”, and Ireland is primed to capitalise thanks to the “perfect” climate here.
“There are snail farmers dropping out year in, year out, in Spain and France because it’s too warm. The method I’m using here wouldn’t be for [snail] eggs, but I’ll get to that at some point, once I’ve the bread and butter side of things sorted.”
The “tweaks” implemented by Peter to get his operations on track have “been the making” of Inis Escargot.
“When it clicked in the breeding room, nothing else mattered,” says Peter, who has added his voice to the growing chorus looking for the likes of Teagasc to begin researching how snail farming can be developed in Ireland.
There is mounting pressure on the Department of Agriculture to amend classification so that Irish snails can be processed in the same facilities as other shellfish and mollusc species, as opposed to farmers sending their produce to Greece.
“It’s madness. A snail, with a tiny carbon footprint, I’ve to ship off to Greece for processing, to get it shipped back here for me to then sell into Europe. There’s shellfish processing units in Ireland lying idle two and three months of the year that could do the same job.”
Aside from some limited Local Enterprise Office support, there are no grants for snail farming start-ups either.
One aspect Peter is exploring is to open his farm for food tourism, by hosting workshops for prospective snail farmers, together with follow-up consultancy.
“I could have five to six calls a week. How’s it going? Where’s your market? How to do this, or do that?! Why not turn that into part of the business?”
Another option is how the nutrient content of snail meat is higher than a chicken egg per gram, and where this could be used to fill a void in the fitness protein market.
Beyond that, every part of a snail has some use, and the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries buy the slime for its many properties, and the shell - pure calcium - is used for fertiliser.
“Three of these little guys equate to what the guys would drink in their protein shakes after training,” Peter says with a wave of his hand.
“But still there’s nothing there to push snail farming on. I could be between €100,000 and €120,000 into this in terms of research and development, set-up, and my wages. I spent a year creating my infrastructure long before I ever dreamt of buying a snail.
“My goal was always to create something that works, and to then help others. It’s a process that has to be done right.
“That’s why recognition is important, and until there are grants available, it’s going to hold things back. I’m not barking at anyone, or biting off more than I can chew. The time is now to move on this. The potential here is incredible.”