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The Great Gastropodian Exodus

Outdoor Living

GHOULISH One of the slugs seen dining on another, slowly.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

An early morning walk revealed an extraordinary sight: huge numbers of slugs all over the road. What were they doing there? I looked to find more among the vegetation at the roadside, but it seemed every one had found its way onto the tarmac.
It did enter my mind that great slaughter could have been done and the population of these unpopular gastropods brought back into line. (Is this where Irish dancing originated?) This spring, more than any other, they have ravaged my flowers and eaten my baby veg.
Slugs of every shape and size were there. Big black ones slithered alongside small grey ones; the mucus trails of red ones and brown ones crossed over and back. Speckled slugs and spotted slugs slipped along together; the large and the small hit the road as one as if some great Gastropodian Exodus were taking place and we should be free of the blight of them forthwith.
There were no snails. Just slugs. Over how many miles of road this scene was replicated I do not know, nor am I aware of any reason it should have taken place.
This is my theory: The weather had been rather odd, which is, I suppose, completely normal. Warm air from North Africa had been pushing up over mainland Europe, the United Kingdom and Ireland, driving a band of rain before it that might have been loaded with Saharan dust. Perhaps the chemistry of the dust was such that it irritated these sensitive animals and, while their snail friends that also abound were able to retreat into their shells, the unfortunate slugs could only try and walk out of the affected area.
When I looked more closely I found something rather ghoulish. Large brown and bigger black slugs were eating their smaller cousins. One brown lad appeared to have been chased and caught by two wolfish characters. On the road were signs of a struggle – an area several inches square covered with slime – and nearby poor Brownie lay on his back with his belly exposed, partly dessicated and being heartily dined upon.
I spent some minutes lying on the road to study the affair with my hand lens and was able to see how the rough, file-like tongues or radulae of the larger beasts were wearing through the leathery hide of their victim.
As with all things in the world of slugs this was a slow and painstaking business. I would have stayed to watch but the rain returned before the matter was complete. Besides, Mrs B was out for her walk.
“Are you alright?” she asked with kindly concern.
“Why, yes,” I said, craning my neck to look up at her. “Look, I found some slugs.”
She looked up and down the lane, no doubt taking in the many hundreds of similar creatures in plain view, then started as if to say something more. She paused, shook her head and continued her brisk morning walk.
She considers me altogether mad, I know it. The last time we met I was falling out of a tree; having determined that the magpie family should be evicted before they properly fledged I had made an attempt to climb as far as their nest and put them to an end. Ten years and a stone weight ago I’d have done the job easily. Now things are less straightforward than they used to be, and I less agile. A lower branch, on which I had paused to catch my breath, proved less than able and broke with a loud cracking sound as it deposited me on the ground.
Momentarily winded, I closed my eyes and did my best to catch my breath. There was that voice again. “Are you alright?”
She thinks I was up there to watch her go by, yet remains generous and tolerant, charming and gracious.
But slugs. We have so many. The last winter was mild, which meant the majority of the population were able to survive. All slugs are hermaphrodite, and all lay large numbers of eggs which wait to hatch until the weather is mild and damp. (There’s not much waiting in this part of the world.) Every baby sluglet, cute though it may be, will begin its own long career of adding to the population within weeks of birth, producing hundreds of eggs in its first year alone.
How best to keep them in check? Interestingly, slugs carry their own inbuilt population control in the form of parasitic nematodes or eelworms, concentrations of which eat them from the inside out. Nematode seeding kits can be purchased from garden centres or easily made at home. Watch this space.