Joanna Lindsay is the Conservation Officer for Buglife Scotland; Laura Larkin is a Conservation Officer for Buglife. They write here about the Marvellous Mud Snails project with schools in Cornwall and Scotland.

The Pond Mud Snail (Omphiscola glabra) is a modest mollusc, by all standards. With its less-than glamourous name and murky brown shell that rarely grows larger than 15mm (roughly the length of your fingernail), many would render this minuscule creature unworthy of attention. At Buglife, we would argue otherwise and have taken on the challenge of conserving this unloved and overlooked gastropod, which is declining throughout much of the UK.

As the name may suggest, Pond Mud Snails inhabit muddy temporary pools, ditches and marshes, which often dry out during the summer season. During this time, the snails burrow into the mud where they remain inactive until the water returns. Unfortunately, these inconspicuous habitats generally go unnoticed and this ignorance has played a key part in the Pond Mud Snail’s demise. Once widespread throughout lowland England, Wales and as far north as Perth in Scotland, the Pond Mud Snail has declined by almost fifty percent across its UK range in the last 25 years. Habitat loss is the culprit in this crime, as the pools this snail calls home are frequently filled in and altered for human purposes. As a consequence, the lowly Pond Mud Snail has been classed ‘near-threatened’ by IUCN, is ‘vulnerable’ in the Red Data Books and is on the Scottish Biodiversity List.

‘Marvellous Mud Snails’ is a project by Buglife, which ran successfully in Scotland and the south west of England, to tackle the Pond Mud Snail’s decline and educate people about the importance of freshwater habitats.

Part of the project is focused on boosting the current population of Pond Mud Snails in the UK through surveying, captive breeding and creating new habitat. However, public engagement and education is also a major aspect of this project, encouraging people of all ages to take an interest in the creatures that inhabit their local ponds, streams and lakes, and raising awareness of just how important these habitats are.

The three major aims of the Marvellous Mud Snails
project are:

  1. to reassess the current population of the Pond Mud Snail
  2. to boost this population through captive breeding and habitat creation
  3. to promote the importance of freshwater habitats through public engagement and education

Mud snails in Scotland

In Scotland, the Pond Mud Snail was initially known from just 5 sites across the country, which then increased to 7 sites following successful surveys in the first 6 months of the project here. The seven sites are located in separate local authority areas: North Lanarkshire, East Dunbartonshire, West Lothian, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Clackmannanshire and the Scottish Borders.

Schools within each of these local authority areas were chosen to be involved in a learning programme as part of the Marvellous Mud Snails project, which allowed them to not only learn about freshwater species and habitats and connect with their local environment, but also to be directly involved in the conservation of a rare species through the captive breeding programme.

Altogether, 9 schools – including both primary and high schools – were involved in the Marvellous Mud Snails learning programme in Scotland. The programme involved working with each school across 3 separate sessions, which included both indoor and outdoor learning activities on the theme of the Pond Mud Snail, other freshwater invertebrates and their habitats. The first session would introduce what invertebrates are, what invertebrates we find in freshwater and then go on to discuss the Pond Mud Snail, why it needs our help and what Buglife are doing to protect it. The discussion was followed by simple indoor activities, such as drawing and colouring snails and other freshwater invertebrates, writing out facts and playing games to highlight habitat loss.

The second session would almost always involve taking the class out to a local pond or river to do pond-dipping, so that the pupils could experience first-hand the creatures we had been discussing in the first session and feel a sense of connection to their local environment. 8 out of the 9 schools also took part in the captive breeding programme during the project and were given snails to look after in their classroom. The snails were given to the class during either the first or second session and pupils were given a lesson on how to properly care for them and how to record important information such as when eggs appeared, how long it took them to hatch etc. The third session would generally be a round-up session to summarise the main ideas and topics covered previously with some more games and activities, often including pupils from other classes in the school so that this knowledge could be shared more widely. In cases where the snails had bred successfully, the class was taken out to help release the juveniles into their new homes.

Most sessions followed this general structure and format but were adapted to suit each school. For example, with one primary school, instead of working with one class over three sessions we worked with their Eco Group over four sessions, running the same activities with a different group of pupils each time.

Feedback on the learning programme was very positive and highlighted that the children strongly valued the opportunity to observe and interact with live specimens, enhancing their learning experience and understanding of the natural world. When asked what their favourite parts of the sessions were, the majority of pupils said that they enjoyed doing pond dipping and getting to “look at bugs up close” the most and were very enthusiastic about doing more.

Laura Garrido-Eslava, teacher at James Gillespie’s Primary School said: “Thank you so much to Buglife for adapting their project to our school… We really appreciate it. The children and the parents loved the sessions. Buglife did a great job!”

Marvellous Mud Snails ran from April 2017 until March 2019 in Scotland and engaged with over 350 pupils in total through the schools learning programme.

Mud snails in Cornwall

The Marvellous Mud Snails project in Cornwall ran for 12 months, from April 2019 until March 2020.

The Pond Mud Snail is a S41 Priority Species for Conservation Action in England. It was formerly fairly widespread in Cornwall, but the few recent records have been largely confined to the mid-Cornwall Moors and West Penwith. For much of its former range, the status of the species is largely unknown.

It has only recently been recorded from four sites, a further eleven sites do not have any post-2000 records.

In Cornwall, much like in Scotland, the project aims to reassess the status of the Pond Mud Snail in the county by re-visiting sites with historic records and carrying out surveys for the snail. Some of these records go back as far as the mid 1800’s and cover a wide geographical area, and so it will be very interesting to see what we’re able to find. The project will train local volunteers in survey techniques to enable us to carry out this surveying much more effectively.

We will also be captive breeding and releasing Pond Mud Snails with four local primary schools in the St Austell and Bodmin areas, close to where some of the most recent records are. We are hoping to dig several new ponds in the local area, and also to release snails into existing ponds in or near places where they have historically been found.

Project Officer Laura Larkin says: “It is hoped that, through participating in the Marvellous Mud Snails Project, local children will gain a much better understanding of not just the Pond Mud Snail but also of some of the other fascinating creatures that make their homes in these often overlooked environments. Through captive breeding and releasing these snails, hopefully the connection they will gain to both the individual species and the habitat they live in will help them to see that all creatures deserve to be conserved, including the small things that run the planet”.

Contact: Joanna.Lindsay@buglife.org.uk

More information: buglife.org.uk

This article was first published in 2020 in Vol 123 of the NAEE journal, as part of the Biodiversity theme. To read articles like this when they are first published, please join NAEE as a member: naee.org.uk/join-naee.