River arrived late in Tréguennec after an exhausting journey from London with his Dad. Next morning, he was off down the garden to check that his much-loved tree house was still there and then to climb up and down its ladder before sitting aloft to contemplate. For whatever reason, he decided to build ‘bird traps’ in the branches above and after several trips around the garden collecting bamboo sticks, cut branches, small planks of wood and some string, building began. Soon the most elaborate ‘trap’ arrangements were in place; so extensive that there was enough of a roof under which he could sit.

When he was not in his tree house or playing football he helped us with the gardening and spent time looking under leaves and turning over stones to collect snails; with fourteen in his bucket he decided to make them a home. What safer site for the home than on the floor of the tree house in a spot protected from birds. It wasn’t long before his new ‘guests’ were installed and left free to fend for themselves (see first illustration). 

By next morning all of the snails had gone. We never knew whether they had ‘walked’ off down the tree trunk or had been eaten by birds, but River was determined that his guests should be replaced and this time he asked me for help.

River’s original search had been so thorough that finding replacements was difficult and I decided to ask a neighbour with a wonderful vegetable garden if he could provide. Once Marcel learned that the snails were for River, he took me to a spot where there might be a good supply. I pulled back a broken door leaning against his greenhouse wall and he was right – lurking there were ten beauties.

As I left with my quarry his wife Malou, who looked after the flower beds, asked what I was up to. I explained my mission and she suggested I look on the underside of the leaves of a particular plant by the front gate; soon I had found four more. 

River was delighted and this time the guests were more securely housed using a deep tin tray and makeshift lid with some specially chosen leaves for nourishment. At this point River’s interest waned.

The next part of this blog, which begins after River had left, is less savoury and raises a moral question. Annie, a close neighbour, keeps chickens. In passing she told me how neither Suzanne nor Simone had laid eggs for over a month. In response to a question, she also said that both chickens loved eating snails.

I worried a lot about my responsibility to River but decided that, in the bigger picture, I could give River’s snails to the chickens as food. They were delighted to receive the fourteen tasty morsels and as they were eating I spoke to them – Annie rarely involves them in conversation! I said that it would be nice if they returned the compliment by laying an egg or two.

Next day Annie brought round the carefully inscribed egg seen in the second illustration. Twenty four hours after their snail feast Suzanne had delivered. Interestingly she produced another egg a day later – the egg drought was over.

I searched the web to see if snails, when eaten, had medicinal properties that might have helped. As a one-time clinical pharmacologist, I was delighted to discover that their ingestion might well have ‘done the trick’. It was Pliny, the first century AD Roman natural philosopher, who provided an early hint when he wrote that in women, snails speed delivery during labour. Then came a recent report that claimed that components of snail flesh liberate hormones called prostaglandins. If this happens in chickens, published evidence suggests that they would relax the vaginal sphincter and contract the muscles of the shell gland and so promote the laying of eggs.Interestingly, in women prostaglandins are used to promote labour!

River’s love for his tree house was a delight, as was his inventiveness in building bird traps and his recognition of the advantage these would have when creating a home for snails. The idea that the neighbour’s two hens loved eating the snails I gave them and that these very snails might have helped at least Suzanne to lay eggs was also a pleasure. It has however been very difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that I breached River’s trust by feeding his snails to a neighbour’s chickens. I will now have to live with this decision for years.

The main illustration is a photo of thirteen snails on the deck of their new tree-house home. You can just see on the far left, two snails on the platform edge having an intimate moment! The second photo is of the egg laid by Suzanne, our neighbour’s black chicken. In translation, the message written on the shell reads “For Joe, from Suzanne”. 

For helping me write this blog I would like to thank River, Annie, Suzanne, Marcel, Malou, Rohan and Vivien.

6 thoughts on “An Egg, a Home for Snails and a Breach of Trust

  1. ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’
    As long as River doesn’t know that his grand-dad offered the snails up to be eaten, (but for a good cause), does it matter that much?Depends, I suppose…


    1. Dear Rissoles, Thank you for your comment. My decision had to be made independently of whether or not River would read it. It was also something that mattered to me. I now believe he might well have done the same thing. Yours, Joe


  2. One day….perhaps not too soon, River will be proud of his contribution to the circle of life! I thought hens were herbivores? Loved this blog Joe, thank you!


    1. Dear TaracB96, Thank you for your comment. I think you are right – River will understand. From the evidence of this story, chickens are certainly not herbivores. Love, Joe


  3. I could visualise this and imagine River’s excitement, diligence, care and thoughtfulness… just like his grandfather.

    River doesn’t need to know yet, and when he does he’ll recognise his grandfather is just like him!


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