Top snail

On 17 September 1967 the Jones family set off on a walk over the South Downs between Denton and South Heighton, in East Sussex. We’d moved to Newhaven a couple of years before, and such was the novelty of countryside (we’d lived in South Norwood, near Croydon previously) that we would still all go on family outings together — nature-watching, picnicking and mud-gathering. Even though I was only 9 I remember it vividly. My father was showing me some of the ‘sheep’ snails in the  grass growing at the side of the footpath.

These are small snail species, prettily marked with bands of black or brown, varying from stout globes to tight spires. Sheep snails are so named because, as the tale goes, they are so numerous in the downland turf that sheep can’t help but eat them inadvertently, and this gives a special flavour to Sussex mutton. It’s a nice tale, but who knows?

My mum bent down and picked up one from a grass stem and my dad’s face rose with astonishment. She had found the top snail, Helicella elegans, one of Britain’s rarest molluscs.

Helicella elegans, aptly named for its elegant conical form.

Helicella elegans, aptly named for its elegant conical form and delicately precise markings.

A cursory search showed that there were thousands of them along the bank of the deeply cut, and obviously ancient, trackway across the downs. And as the day progressed, it soon transpired that this was going to be the largest colony of the snail anywhere in Britain (actually there are only two other UK sites known). There were loads of them, extending for several hundreds of metres along the banks of the various byways hereabouts.

Over the next few months, whenever walks took us this way, we’d always stop and have a look for them, and over time we found the snail along several kilometres of pathway, the banks of which were remnant rough flowery grassland remaining where much of the gentler slopes of the downs had been ploughed for arable crops.

I can’t remember the last time I picked one up there, probably in the early 1980s when this photo was taken.

So what a delight to be walking out across these same tracks yesterday, now with my family in tow, and ‘Grandad’ as he is now telling the same sheep snail anecdotes. “What’s this one” says Lillian, plucking a small snail off a grass stem.

It can only be one thing.

Still as dainty as ever, but now Trochoidea elegans.

Still as dainty as ever, but now Trochoidea elegans.

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