So, What Are They Actually For?

Photo by Pixabay on

We have lived in this house for forty years now and we have always had slugs, but never before in these numbers. They have appeared in a huge variety of black and orange, smooth and scaly, spotted and striped, big and small – and all looking like they have been regurgitated by a gull. Where are they all coming from? Behind us is farm land. It has been fallow for a couple of years, during which time, I suppose it could have become a gastropodal nursery. It is about to have houses built on it. Are the slugs fleeing the scene in numbers which I can only describe as biblical? Well, I’ve looked over the back fence and I can see no evidence of an encroaching slimy tsunami. The carpet of green and leafy weed does not appear to have been ravaged in the same manner as the foliage in our own (formerly) verdant plot. Besides, the builders haven’t arrived yet – is it even possible that slugs have foresight? I am certainly unaware of any eminence they may have in pre-planning circles. I question this perspicacity.

So, if they haven’t migrated here from the soon-to-be building site in anticipation of an imminent eviction, why have they suddenly decided to foregather in such numbers – and why in my garden? Have I, perhaps, introduced a new gastronomic morsel to my garden that is irresistible to the gastropod palate? Have I, perhaps, stumbled upon the slug equivalent of mashed avocado on toast? In short, I think the answer is ‘No’. It is a long-established garden and, save for the pots and baskets, filled almost exclusively with perennials. No new dishes have been added to the menu. There has been no spike in my Michelin rating.

I am certain that climate change is a factor – wet and warm does seem to suit the terrestrial mollusc rather more than it suits its natural predators: the hedgehog and the thrush. Both of these beautiful creatures are increasingly rare visitors to my garden now, and it’s a real shame because boy, could they plump up for winter. I resist the lure of slug pellets, lest they have a second-hand effect upon the slug consumers. In their absence, my efforts at slug control are definitely beginning to flounder.

I was once told to salt slugs, but the effect was so dramatic and so grotesque that I have never been tempted to repeat it. You would need a heart of stone and a cast-iron constitution to tackle the problem in that way. Anyway, the sheer numbers would pose a severe threat to the salt supply for the Highways Department in the winter – not to mention the blood pressure of any hedgehog that might happen to stumble upon the over-seasoned remains. So, a brush and pan is my main means of mass-collection, before bagging and dropping into the bin, from where they can be transported to their new home at the landfill.

I have noticed though, that whilst the slug population has boomed Chez McQueen, the snail population has diminished to a similar degree. Are slugs and snails, perhaps, competing for the same food source and the slugs, unencumbered by heavy household arrangements and therefore more fleet of foot (Foot? I’m not sure, I’ll have to check that out*.) getting there much more quickly than their principal competition? Perhaps I see shadows of our own society. I know that slugs and snails are closely related biologically. What if slugs are, in fact, snails that have not yet managed to get a foot on the housing ladder? That would explain everything. Except that I keep on finding empty snail shells and I keep on leaving them where the slugs foregather and, to my knowledge, not one of them has ever taken up vacant possession. Perhaps, like elsewhere in this world, they have discovered that they’re better off with mum and dad after all…

*Just did. A slug is a gastropod which means ‘stomach foot’. Not sure it’s how I would choose to imbibe my bouillabaisse, but hey, it’s nature…

The Loneliness of a Mottled Green Lawn Owner

chafers under lawn

We are a green oasis in a land of shingle.

To the front of our house is a small lawn. It is the first thing I see when I open the curtains in the morning. It is, I think, probably essential to my well-being. To the back we have a slightly larger lawn which the grandchildren play on. I do not require either of them to be flat or weed-free. I do not require a predictable bounce for semi-bald tennis ball or an undeviated path for bowl or jack. I do not require them to be in the kind of condition that compels me to place ‘Do not walk on…’ notices all around them. I require them only to be green (probably the least you can ask of a lawn) and slightly softer than concrete for falling on. Now here is where the problems start.

Last year the entire village where we live was hit by chafers. These little grubs live under your lawn, munching on the roots, until they metamorphose into a shiny backed beetle, dig their way out and fly off to mate and eventually infest some other poor bugger’s lawn. Now, the lawn doesn’t like having its roots chopped off at the… well, root and responds by dying. Johnny blackbird, rook and crow are no slouches at spotting the old dead lawn. They recognise that there is likely to be a plethora of sizeable snacks under there, and they start tugging at the turf which, being deficient in the root department, lifts like a carpet. You go to work in the morning with a nice brown lawn and return in the evening to the Somme. Of course there is nothing to see where the birds have lifted the sods – anything that was there has been eaten – although if you listen carefully you can probably hear the gathered ranks of turdus and corvidae quietly belching in the trees. If you are anything like me and your lawn knowledge is not what it ought to be, you can’t quite comprehend what is occurring at first. The birds, naturally, are not present when you are and you can only scratch your head at the cause of the devastation. But then, eventually, you take a hold of one of the last remaining islands of withered poaceae and pull it up yourself and what you see are dozens of white grubs with brown heads and a clump of legs that you hate on sight. Suddenly you experience the kind of intense loathing for a hitherto unknown invertebrate that you have not felt since you found that your prize courgette was chock-full of piggy beetles. You know that you do not have the time to go through the full lawn and pick the little buggers out one by one, so you retreat inside and watch on gleefully as our feathered friends descend upon them en-masse and, when they are sated, you go outside and pull up another bit of benighted sod…

The problem is, there is little else to do. The RHS advised nematode treatment (note the past tense). Nematodes, should you have any desire to know, are microscopic organisms that you water into your lawn. (I should probably advise you to leave the blog here if you are eating a meal.) You then have to keep your lawn really wet because nematodes do not have widdly little legs or any other means of propulsion, they basically swim around in the water between the grains of earth searching for chafers. When they find them they slip straight in through the skin, where they start to multiply. The chafer is not keen on this and, in the fullness of time, he/she (how on earth would you know?) is even less so when it explodes and blasts a few more million nematodes into the sodden soil (I did warn you) who swim off in search of other chafers. The only trouble is, it doesn’t work. At first, everyone said that it did, but then, when it became apparent that it didn’t, they all turned away slightly and, coughing, murmured ‘Me? Never said anything of the kind. Who would ever believe that such a thing could work anyway?’ Unfortunately, by the time I had become aware of the misinformation, I had, content in the ‘knowledge’ that my microscopic assassins were hard at work, lifted my dead lawn and laid new. I could almost hear the massed pupae tucking in their serviettes.

So, the current advice is to keep the lawn well-watered and fed and hope for the best. The birds do not find it so easy to pull up dead wet grass apparently and, having hatched, the beetles are less likely to return to an abode with such a sinking damp problem. My well-watered and fed lawn is currently in a state that I would describe as pre-dead. It is not yet deceased, but I know that it is ready to cough its last at any minute. But I will not give in easily. I do not want to open my curtains to gravel. That would not be good for my soul. So I will continue to water and feed and I will keep my fingers firmly crossed and I will hope that my nematode army is just a slow starter.

And this is where we came in. There is a landscape gardener in our village. He specialises in fences and paths and, just now, he particularly specialises in ripping up lawns and replacing them with gravel. He tells me that he is doing four a week – not bad going in a village – and he has just finished the houses either side of me. In fact, we are one of six houses in a little row and the only one not to have had the lawn removed.

My problem is this: having just decided that I ought to make myself aware of what the mother chafer might look like so that if I ever see her making her way towards my lawn I can advise her of the error of her ways in no uncertain terms, I have discovered that following an infestation, homeowners often find themselves bewildered by the speed and extent of the destruction which may ensue owing to the fact that crows are accompanied to the feast by raccoons and foxes (thank you Wicki) and all I can say is that if I’m going to have a front lawn full of raccoons, I might well move anyway – preferably to somewhere with gravel…