Dear Reader, I wonder what you get up to on a wet Friday evening? I am fairly sure that what you won’t be doing is standing in your back garden with a camera, while your husband shines a torch onto a small gathering of garden snails beside the water butt. But as I gazed out of my kitchen window yesterday, I was astonished to see a positive molluscan invasion taking place, as a wide variety of slugs and snails eased themselves out of their cozy nooks and headed across the patio.
The slugs started to emerge before it was even dark, with one intrepid individual making his way to the bird table at about five o’clock.
Now, the first thing that you might notice is that the slug above is not, in fact, black. This is what’s known as the red form, and is by far the commonest slug in my garden. The dainty tomato-red skirt is the giveaway, and when disturbed, the slug bunches itself up into a tight little mound until you go away. Here, s/he (for slugs are hermaphrodite) is tucking into a suet pellet, knocked to the floor by a boisterous starling. This is a clue to the way that these creatures feed – they are not interested in your new carrot seedlings or your tender plantlets, preferring decaying plant matter, carrion, and dung. For those of you in other parts of the country, this is what a Large Black Slug looks like when it’s actually black:
I’ve seen these slugs in Devon, and I thought that they were rather beautiful, as they made their stately way down the road after a shower. They seem to have been carved out of coal.
Now, the slug below is also innocent of vegetable munching:
It’s difficult to see on the photo, but this slug has a speckled back, and when interrupted in its mission, it contracts into a characteristic bell-shape when viewed from the end. Bourguignat’s Slug, again, feeds largely on decaying matter.
So, in my garden, there is only one real culprit in the case of the missing angelica (chewed to the ground within two days of planting), or the disappearing borage mystery (there one day, gone the next).
The Garden Snail, Cornu aspersum, grows fine and healthy in my garden, and by night can be seen advancing at considerable speed towards the plants. There is nothing that s/he likes better than the evening after I’ve been to the garden centre.S/he is the cause of more bad language than any other creature in the garden (apart from the little black cat that keeps harrassing my frogs).
And yet. What an extraordinary creature s/he is. When it got too dark and the rain started up again, I brought a selection of slugs and snails into the kitchen, to see if I could get some photos and make sure that I had the species right. The slugs sat sadly at the bottom of the tray, resigned to fate. The snail had other ideas.
The snail soon unfurled from its shell and decided to make a break for it. When I tried to pick it up and put it back , the suction from its foot was so strong that I lifted the whole tray, slugs and all. I decided to watch it make its way around the rim, and found myself fascinated by the way that it used its eye stalks to try to work out what was going on. The eyes are fairly basic but enable the snail to tell dark from light, and, coupled with the lower sensory organs (which can smell and taste) the snail is able to explore its environment very efficiently.
It’s known that snails can find their way home from a considerable distance (certainly from several hundred metres) so this story amused me. Throwing snails into your neighbour’s garden is not only rude, but ineffective.
Last year, I found this snail wandering across the path.
These are much less common in my garden, but how exquisite they are, banded in strawberry-pink and chocolate-brown. These snails cause very little damage, and in Dorset, where my parents live, they seem to be the dominant kind, appearing in every possible combination of brown and yellow, white and green.
Most people loathe the poor slug, harmless or not. Our relationship with snails is more ambivalent. Many children love their slowness, the way that they can disappear within their shells, the way that their eyes peer around myopically. Yet, they too can wreak havoc, especially in the vegetable garden.
As I looked at the snail in my kitchen, who was now heading towards the butter dish with a surprising turn of speed, I knew that I was going to live and let live, in spite of the plant damage. Anything that I did to the Garden Snails would also kill all the other molluscs who were actually helping by tidying up the garden. And whenever I visit the garden after dark, I hear the plop-plop of frogs diving back into the pond, disturbed in the middle of a slug and snail hunting spree. How can I risk hurting the frogs?
These are all very rational reasons for not declaring biocide on the Garden Snails, but there was something else. I realised that I had never really looked at a snail before. ‘My’ snail seemed to be a determined individual, exploring the environment with all the senses at its disposal. S/he moved with a sinous grace, rising up, bowing down, all the time gliding along on a single muscular foot, seemingly without effort. I was entranced by the gyrating eye-stalks, the way that the lower tentacles extended and retracted in a kind of ballet.
Once I have truly seen any creature, I can’t find it in myself to want to destroy it.