There’s no doubt slugs can mess up your life, but I’m more and more convinced that they’re not the problem they’re often cracked up to be. I’m saying this even though our entire carrot crop has been wiped out this year, and considerable damage done to onions and potatoes, so I’m under no illusions. But slow growth – endemic in the north, and in a year like 2012 extra painful – is a much greater background problem, and one that’s occupying us much just now, as we try to work out things like the precise order of crop rotation, and the best kind of bringing-on and transplanting methods.
Rachel has read somewhere that slugs are “nomadic”, unlike snails which always return to base after a food foray (I think this was the subject of an experiment that resulted in an “amateur scientist” award for someone a couple of years ago): I’m not at all convinced that slugs are nomadic in the sense of constantly itinerant, not returning to base or not having any favourite food source, though it’s possible that there’s a wave-versus-particle type of thing going on, with marker-trails forming the basis for the “wave” notion of slugs, such that the same food source will be visited in turn by a whole convoy of “nomadic” slugs. But I’m not convinced about that either: my experience of the creatures is that, as individuals, they’re conservative: they know when they’re onto a good thing, they stick with what they know, they don’t go abroad if they’re happy at home. I don’t know if there are any authoritative scientific works on the habits of slugs, though there seem to be plenty of the how-to-get-rid-of-this-pest type of works. But there’s every reason to suppose that ordinary people’s detailed observations could still be significant in building up a science of slugs. While remaining dubious about the “nomadic” claim, at the same time I wouldn’t like to suggest that Rachel’s source was lying or anything: so the obvious conclusion would be what I’d already suspect, ie that different slugs behave differently in different localities, and even differently around different individuals (meaning both individual gardens and their inhabitants). Naturally one would have to add that, like any creature, slugs can also be expected to behave differently at different ages.
I’m increasingly struck by a feeling that slugs are a gentle and benign presence in the garden and that their destructive work occurs, as it were, by accident. I suspect they do something on the surface of the soil that is similar to what mycelium does a couple of inches down, ie create, or contribute to, a network of nutrient information and distribution. Sometimes things get out of hand, of course, and then a gardener has to exercise some sort of control if crops are to survive, but it looks as though regular picking off in the early part of the summer can achieve a lot (though that doesn’t work with a crop like carrots, which are so small and delectable that a whole row will disappear in a single night before you’re even aware of the threat). What to do with the slugs after they’re picked off is another matter: is it enough to dump them somewhere off the garden area? So how nomadic are they, and if they are really nomadic, won’t they return?
I go on the basis that slugs a) like soft and sweet and b) are, as I mentioned, conservative in their detailed tastes. For this second reason slugs that are found actually eating vegetables are not allowed to survive in our garden. If we had ducks they’d be fed to the ducks; our hens can be a little bit iffy about slugs (though Rachel says this isn’t her experience), but when I mix my bucket of slugs with a few handfuls of bruised oats, which obviously offsets the sliminess, the hens always seem ultra enthusiastic. I don’t like doing things like drowning them (the slugs I mean, not the hens), or stamping on them (which is slow and unpleasant) though if there’s no other recourse I suppose drowning them in beer seems a bit kinder than putting them into cold water. But so far getting them to contribute to our egg-crop has worked all right on a practical level.
The soft-and-sweet thing is the most interesting to me, and it’s led us to implement a high-risk strategy that to some extent seems to have paid off. You can look into one of our micro-jungles of grass and weeds beside a vegetable patch, and in a year like this it’ll be crawling (heaving? oozing?) with slugs. But that doesn’t mean they’ll like all that much of the stuff they’re living among: that’s more like the living-room and bedroom area, while the kitchen will be just a soft slide away across bare earth – ie., the vegetable bed. The reason for this is that most weeds, and to a certain extent grass, stops being soft-and-sweet after the earlier part of the season, and presumably start secreting Keep Off types of chemical. Soft-and-sweet happens to be how humans like their food too, hence the conflict of interest. But slugs seem to be able to get their soft-and-sweet out of decaying organic matter to an extent that humans tend not to. So leaving weeds lying where we pulled them seems for the most part to be a way of providing our molluscan neighbours with a food source that’ll keep them more or less off our valued crops.
I’ve learned a lesson with this year’s potatoes, though. As detailed elsewhere, the guinea-pigs prepare the ground for next year’s potato crop. This year I’m going to rake over the grass mulch that this treatment leaves behind and have a couple of sturdy hens with me to feast on the slug-eggs which will almost certainly be lying around. I’ll leave the grass mulch on over winter, and then rake it off prior to planting the tatties. Any new-hatched slugs which the hens missed will hopefully be among this lot, so with a bit of luck there won’t be too many to bother the desired plants. As a postscript to this, I have a faint suspicion that the slugs might actually have helped the potatoes a little this year by retarding their growth when the weather was cold and wet, so preventing the syndrome that I’ve heard many other growers complaining of: great big shaws with very little in the roots. However the tattie harvest is not yet in full swing so I’d better not speak too soon – and of course we’re steeling ourselves for the forced eviction of many resident slimers within the tubers.