A nationwide hunt was launched today for a tiny Mediterranean snail which has turned up in the UK after stowing away on stonework imported as Victorian “bling” more than a hundred years ago.
The snail, which has no English name, hitched a ride from Europe on statues, rocks and brickwork in the 19th century – but remained hidden from naturalists until recently.
It was discovered at the National Trust’s Cliveden estate in Buckinghamshire by volunteers cleaning statues in the gardens in 2008.
The snail, Papillifera bidens*, was thought to have arrived on a balustrade from the Villa Borghese in Rome in 1896, and with suitably snail-paced progress seems to have taken more than a hundred years to reach stonework 60 yards away.
It has been found on other stonework around the estate.
The snail has also turned up at the Trust’s Brownsea Island, Dorset, on rock which came from Greece in the 1880s, and the Trust is now keen to find out where else it has managed to colonise in the UK.
The snail, which has a pinky-grey spindle-shaped shell about 1cm long, is common in the Mediterranean where it is often found on old buildings.
Experts at the National Trust believe that the Victorian and Edwardian fashion for importing stone from the Mediterranean could mean the snail and other species may be found elsewhere in the UK – even as far north as Scotland.
Matthew Oates, National Trust nature conservation adviser, said: “The Victorians and Edwardians loved importing statues, rock and brickwork from the Mediterranean.
“The shipping over of this ‘bling’ in large quantities suggests we could find new species, such as this lovely little snail, in surprising places.”
In the wake of the two discoveries of the snail on National Trust land, the only recorded occurrences in the UK, the organisation is carrying out an audit of its properties and asking the public to help establish the true extent of the snail’s distribution.
The National Trust for Scotland and English Heritage are also joining in the hunt.
The two sites where the snail has been found are now vying to give the creature an English name – either the Cliveden snail or the Brownsea snail.
Despite the UK’s cooler climes, the populations in both sites have managed to move a number of yards from their original stonework over a century and remain healthy.
And with many items from stately home gardens ending up in reclamation yards as they were sold off to raise money or as gardens fashions changed, Mr Oates said it was possible the snail could by now be fairly widespread in the UK.
“It has an amazing track record of hitchhiking. Its Mediterranean range has been expanding quite considerably, probably since Roman times and it may well be an inveterate hitchhiker on imported stone and statues of limestone and marble.
“Given that the UK has always had the best naturalists in the world, it’s remarkable that these two colonies have taken so long to come to light, even though they’re in our own backyard.
“Who knows where else this small but beautifully-shaped snail could be found lurking?”
* Papillifera bidens, previously known as Papillifera papillaris