Our Guest Blog is written by Ben Gardner from Ecology Consultancy in Oxford | Ecology by Design
When the city of Rome came under attack in AD410 and the empire was falling apart, the Roman Emperor Honorius said goodbye to the people of Britain. He exited with a parting message, “fight bravely and defend your lives…you are on your own now”.
But long after they were gone, the Romans had left their mark all over the country.
Sure, they gave us new towns, high-quality straight roads, indoor plumbing and the relaxing spa bath (all of which we are undeniably grateful for) but the Romans were also responsible for large-scale deforestation and a permanent transformation of our country’s landscape and ecology.
A living legacy
Thanks to their taste for exotic cuisine and ornamental gardens, numerous ‘alien species’ were introduced to the UK by the Romans, including some of our most familiar garden plants (and weeds). More than fifty new plant foods, including onions, leeks and peas, were imported and cultivated wherever the climate would allow. Others arrived by stealth with their seeds mixed amongst imported grains. Marching Roman armies inadvertently spread the seeds up and down the country.
The beautiful British Rose garden was created by the Romans. They brought to us the concept of gardens as places for leisure and pleasure, often fully adorned with vibrant peacocks.
The Pheasant, Fallow Deer and Brown Hare, which most of us associate with the Great British countryside, were all gifted to us. Indeed, it’s clear we have a lot to thank the Romans for when it comes to our gardens and green landscapes.
The introduction of species from other continents had positive and negative effects, and they continue today. On the positive side, the British diet was notably broadened with what would become important agricultural crops and beneficial animals. It also, however, expanded the range of species in the country that carried disease and competed with beneficial native species. Today the accelerated movement of plants and animals around the planet is understood as one the most significant threats to global biodiversity.
The (not so) incredible, edible dormouse
One such alien invader is the Glis Glis. The English name “edible dormouse” derives from the Roman’s habit of eating them. Although historical documentation suggests that they were actually imported from Hungary into Tring Park in Hertfordshire by Lord Rothschild in 1902. Regardless, they adapted very well to the British countryside and the animals turned out to be quite prolific. Edible dormice have established populations mainly in the Chilterns but are also found around the New Forest, Hampshire and Essex.
Much larger than its cousin, the native common or ‘hazel’ dormouse, the edible dormouse has a bushier tail and resembles a young grey squirrel.
As the seasons change, and the weather gets cooler, the edible dormouse looks for places to hibernate. In your home, business premises, lofts, garages, just about anywhere they can find a warm, cosy area to bed down. These agile and stealthy creatures can be present in your building, in groups of up to 30, without you knowing. When mating season begins, June/July, their noisy movements can draw attention (particularly if they’re in your loft or cavity wall). They also love to chew through timbers and wires and can cause quite substantial damage in just a short time.
You certainly don’t want to be buying or selling a property with these furry nuisances in residence. Get the problem swiftly addressed.
Don’t tackle the problem yourself
The edible dormouse was protected under Section 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, in an attempt to control the distribution of the species. This means that only individuals who are authorised under licence can trap them, and it is an offence to release them back into the wild. If you suspect you may have edible dormice on your property, or in an area you are looking to develop, contact an ecology consultant for advice.
Glutton for punishment
Guinea fowl, chickens and rabbits were introduced for satiating the Roman appetite. So, too, were the Roman Snails or Helix pomatia (more famously known as the exclusive French cuisine “Escargot”).
And this is one of our problematic aliens. It may not be a little green man, but it is nowadays a legally protected species. Should one of these little characters appear in your back garden, your plans for an extension or sale of your property could be about to get a little more complex. (You’ll certainly want a good conveyancing lawyerstanding by…).
The Roman snail is included in the Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and it is an offence to intentionally kill, injure or take them. The primary reason for its legal protection in England and Wales (and elsewhere in Europe) was an increasing trend in collection of large numbers by amateur cooks and for commercial use in restaurants. However, the legal protection this species is now afforded has implications for development projects.
How can I identify Roman snails?
- The Roman snail is a big snail, with a shell that can be up 5cm across.
- It has a creamy to light brown colour shell, with a ridged texture.
- It may be striped but never has a zigzag pattern.
- Empty Roman snail shells often appear very pale and lack the brown colouration, as they become ‘bleached’.
Roman snails are active from late April/May until October each year and they hibernate in the winter.
The main hotspots for populations of Roman snails in England are along the North Downs (from Surrey to Kent), the Chilterns (especially in Hertfordshire) and throughout the Cotswolds and Mendip Hills fringes. There are also documented populations in Cambridgeshire, and they have been discovered along Motorway verges around the M25.
Planning for a building project in an area where Roman Snail are established
Despite being the largest species of land snail in the UK, your average building surveyor generally won’t find them.
Your solicitor will recommend that you have an ecologist conduct a survey if any of the following apply;
- You’re looking to develop a site which is in the Chilterns (particularly Hertfordshire), North Downs and Cotswolds
- Any evidence (such as empty shells) is spotted during a routine building survey
- Neighbours raise concerns over the possible presence of Roman Snail
An ecology consultant will work with you to design a mitigation plan which protects the population whilst allowing your development to proceed. This generally involves areas of vegetation clearance being (painstakingly) hand searched, and this must be carried out outside of the hibernation period.
Fencing is usually erected around the site location to deter the snails from re-entering the area prior to works commencing.
Oh, and don’t even think about picking them up and moving them yourself. This is actually a criminal offence and could land you with a hefty fine. It’s illegal to handle a Roman Snail because it’s protected against ‘taking’. It’s even illegal to handle their empty shells. For ecology consultants to carry out a survey for this species they must obtain a licence from Natural England. (Another thing the Romans loved was bureaucracy..!).
Wildlife conservation can be a tricky subject to navigate during a house purchase or renovation, but we can help. If you have any concerns about protected species and property, please do get in touch.
Ecology by Design are a team of highly experienced ecological consultants that thrive on providing simple solutions to complex ecological constraints. We provide a wide range of ecology services ranging from bat and newt surveys, large ecological impact assessments and mitigation through to biodiversity net gain and natural capital accounting.