Country Matters: Tracks of slime and crunching teeth
The warmth and evaporation of dampness underfoot has revealed a clinging meniscus of slime, the calling card of herbivorous gastropods, active by night and also visible after daytime rain.
The slugs were waiting when I opened the front door and if they could make sounds I am sure they would have called a friendly greeting. Always on the move, these fellows seemed to be waiting to enter the house. Their tracks are thick and sticky, their eyes at the tips of their tentacles.
I tread warily when negotiating old steps and with my foot push aside a great grey (Limax maximus can be up to 20cm long) and a couple of smaller cousins, a common garden and, perhaps a Budapest (pale to dark grey with yellow keel) tagging along as hopeful hunters of new territories.
All that glue helps prevent desiccation and gives protection against enemies though early gobbling birds may be few and morning magpies have not begun their garden foraging in the wild growth and cut grass providing a mollusc-friendly menu.
These slugs like to slither on old, shattered surfaces perhaps holding microscopic particles of interest from ancient sandy shores.
There are about 30 species which set out on nights of travel, adventure and discovery. Many will devastate garden crops before dawn in their endless quest for food. Slugs such as the common and Budapest will destroy root crops and herbaceous plants, though the great grey slug prefers rotting vegetation as a main course.
The night-shift crew is equipped with four noses and tentacles which can detect food from three metres over an area of 45 sqm of travel. Thousands of teeth can make short shrift of anything gardeners have not taken steps to protect. And when the blitzkrieg is over they can make their way home by their old slimy paths.
Most gardeners, loath to use chemical deterrents, experiment with various methods to curb the pests. There are traditional barriers such as coffee grounds (caffeine is deadly), ash, fine gravel, grapefruit skins, copper garden-tape, water-filled moats, parasitic eel-worms. Strong smelling kitchen food such as onions, garlic and chives are also old reliables.
Newer deterrents include nematodes, microscopic roundworms which eat slugs. And there is a wildlife-and- human-friendly pellet from the Swiss Institute for Organic Agriculture, with an iron phosphate base that I have seen recommended.
You could always try drink! Slugs really fancy a night on the town. Bury a container of stale lager leaving a rim of about an inch so that useful beetles and spiders will not fall in. The slugs' exceptional sense of smell will lead them to a boozy end.
If you have access to poultry, especially ducks, all your problems will be solved. Ducks are especially partial to slugs, sucking them up, and won't plunder garden beds. You may also go about at night with a bucket and flashlight picking them up. And when you weary of the chores think of a giant slug from Africa called Achatina fulica which is as big as a banana with an appetite to match. Imagine finding this on the kitchen floor at 3am!