Stock photo: Rex
British conservationists are up in arms after a spate of snail thefts in a Surrey wood.
Slippery poachers are gathering up thousands of Roman snails, which are then being sold off for up to £1 each to French restaurants that fry them up in garlic butter and serve them as the l'escargot delicacy.
The level of theft is such that the Roman snail population has been reduced by two thirds.
Police have now been called in as the snails are a protected species and it is illegal to take and sell them.
Andy Keay, a volunteer for WoodChip Conservation, which patrols the 160-acre Banstead Woods and chalklands to put off the poachers, said a 33lb haul of 400 Roman snails could earn a poacher about £400.
He told the Mirror: "A lot of people say they are only snails.
"But they must be three to five years old to breed, so if you take them all out, you're going to devastate the numbers very quickly.
"It makes me very angry."
Mr Keay explained how he recently caught a poacher in the act as he walked off with two "huge carrier bags full of snails".
He said: "I told him he was breaking the law and I grabbed the bags and the snails stayed."
The snails are a particularly easy target, not only because of their famously slow speed, but also because they tend to stay within a habitat of just 30 square yards.
According to the Telegraph, Roman snails are the largest species in Britain, measuring about four inches in length.
Because the snails are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 you must be licensed to touch them, and any offenders could risk a maximum fine of £5,000 or six months in prison.
Think eating snails is weird? Check out some of these strange dishes across the globe:
Sign up to our weekly newsletterFollow us on TwitterBecome a fan on Facebook