Friday, 22 June 2012

Moist mornings favour slugs

The forest trails are still damp with last night’s rain and scattered puddles reveal the extent of the downpour. Many are edged sap-green and yellow, evidence of the conifer pollen that has been making me sneeze of late. The damp ground is clearly to the liking of the slugs, various species of which can be seen crossing the normally dusty ground. Some are familiar to me, species that are found in many different habitats and which are well represented across the county, but others are unfamiliar and will, for the moment, remain so.

Each slug leaves behind it evidence of its passing in the form of a trail of slime. The slime, like that of snails, was once thought to have magical properties, even being used to treat coughs and sore throats. Interestingly, at least for snail slime, there is a scientific basis to such a use, since it has been discovered that the slime has antibacterial properties and is also effective in repairing skin blemishes. The use of slugs, boiled in milk, as a cure for consumption has rather less basis in scientific fact. The same can be said for the tradition of rubbing a slug on a wart and then impaling the unfortunate gastropod on a thorn. It was believed that as the slug died so the wart would disappear.

It is easy to see why slugs appear close to the top of any poll of garden pests. They will eat just about anything but have a preference for succulent new growth, often in the form of newly sprouted vegetable plants and salad leaves. They have, however, also been noted to feed on milk, carrion, damp newspaper and lichens! We have twenty-odd species in Britain but only a few can rightly be regarded as a nuisance in the garden. Others are restricted to particular habitats, for example mature woodland, or occur at low densities and are sensitive to human disturbance.

These woodland slugs, crossing the forest ride ahead of me, do fascinate me though. Some, like the glossy black examples as long as my little finger, are rather striking even if, without an external shell, they are less engaging than their snail counterparts. The small number of species suggests that this is a group that the amateur entomologist can quickly become familiar with and, additionally, many can be found in gardens with relative ease. All can be kept in captivity and, given the right conditions, will breed successfully, providing a good starting point for the young naturalist. Unlike snails, however, slugs are prone to desiccation and need to be kept damp. This is the reason that I tend to see more about in the forest on those damp mornings following overnight rain.

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