Nature notes from the plot: wildlife saints and sinners
What measures can you take to make your garden a paradise for the wildlife you want but a nightmare for the wildlife you absolutely don’t? Helen Babbs from London Wildlife Trust has been finding out…
Wildlife Trusts across the UK are encouraging growers to garden in a wildlife friendly way, pointing out how vital our gardens are as habitats and how they can help to minimise the impacts of climate change. There is possibly nothing more frustrating than losing crops to slugs, snails and other pests, but if you decide to grow in a wildlife friendly way do you leave your plants more open to attack?
Summer 2008 was my first as a kitchen / wildlife gardener. The season had its ups and downs, the ups being harvesting my own salad leaves and herbs, the downs being the veggies that didn’t make it, the labour and love that came to nothing. Now seems like a good time to look back and assess what happened, and also to learn how I can prepare for a better growing season next time round.
One thing I discovered this year was that slugs love basil, which was both surprising to naïve me and also most upsetting. My delicious basil went from a thriving, healthy plant to little more than a stump over one wet night – a pathetic looking skeleton of its former self, glistening all over with the trails of a gluttonous slug like so many brutal fingerprints.
As a kitchen gardener I wanted revenge, but as a wildlife gardener I wanted to understand more about these beasts and their role in my garden’s ecosystem.
To fight slugs, I needed to know more about them, and also more about the species that will control them for me.
“If you watch a slug through a pane of glass the movement of its foot muscles produce an effect rather like a ripple of lights flashing on and off. It’s really quite beautiful”. So says Allan Shepherd who is co-author of The Little Book of Slugs and something of a slug expert. He spent this year trying to control slugs in his vegetable patch without resorting to pellets. He relied on developing an understanding of slugs and snails’ behaviour and spent many a night picking them off his crops by hand.
“I’ve discovered that in averagely dry conditions slugs are attracted to food that is conveniently placed near to their hiding places and can be coaxed away from plants you wish to protect by using cut comfrey leaves. But in very wet conditions all bets are off. Slugs will wander all over the place and you need to pick them off at night”
Allan advocates spending more time in your garden at night as a way of getting to grips with slugs, and also experiencing a bit of moonlit magic. “The garden at night is calm and quiet, but if you listen closer you can hear all sorts of things you wouldn’t normally tune into. Munching and movement. There are moths trying to find mates, bats trying to eat them, spiders on the prowl looking for woodlice, frogs and toads wandering about looking for slugs.
“Humans have an amazing capacity to observe the world, learn from it and change it. It’s a big responsibility and a big pleasure. When I’m in the garden at night-time, gently removing slugs to another part of the garden, I think about this stuff! It gives me time to reflect about nature, to examine my plants close up to see if there’s anything wrong with them, and to protect my crops at the same time.
“You could just put pellets or nematodes down but you would lose that direct contact. Of course I’ve only got a small patch. If I had a huge garden I might not allow myself so much luxurious night bathing.
“I think we should love slugs for their wildlife value but understand that we can’t both eat the same things. I’m not sentimental about slugs. If I find that my current methods stop working I’ll use a control but I think it was pretty successful this year and it saved me buying any traps, pellets or biological controls. Rather than killing them I’d prefer that they lived in my garden to provide food for predators”.
Allies in the slug war
By making your kitchen garden a wildlife friendly one it will provide vital habitat and food sources for many species, some of them quite rare. Frogs, toads and hedgehogs simply love to eat slugs, and they also need our help.
Frogs and toads have to be some of the slugs’ worst enemies and are definitely worth encouraging into your garden or allotment. Both have suffered due to wetland habitat loss, so building a pond is an excellent way to both help wildlife and help protect your vegetables. Even small ponds can support a rich diversity of species and a series of ponds in an area creates essential corridors for wildlife to move along. Ponds also store large amounts of carbon, helping to reduce the impacts of climate change.
The gardener’s friend
Hedgehogs, once a common sight in our gardens, are really struggling at the moment. Habitat loss, traffic accidents and poisoning have seen their numbers seriously decline across the UK. But we need these spiny mammals, they are crucial in our bid to control slugs.
Dr Nigel Reeve works for The Royal Parks in London and knows a thing or two about hedgehogs, explaining that they really are the vegetable grower’s friend. “They eat a wide range of ground-dwelling invertebrates, including pests like caterpillars, slugs, leatherjackets and cockchafer grubs. They are an important part of natural pest control in any garden or allotment. Encourage them by creating a garden rich in invertebrates and with suitable nesting sites. Keep it free of hazards such as loose netting and steep-sided garden ponds and holes.”
And remember your garden or allotment is part of a whole network of green spaces that stretch across the country and allow species to move. The Wildlife Trust’s vision of A Living Landscape, which is all about joining up good bits of green space to enhance their collective worth for wildlife, applies here. Nigel advises we should allow 10cm gaps at ground level in walls and fences to allow hedgehogs to pass through, pointing out that an adult male hedgehog may range over an area of more than 100 acres in search of food, nesting sites and a mate.
Part of the system
It seems that natural methods of slug control can only make my garden better for wildlife. Accepting that slugs have an important role to play in the garden is a big first step! Not all slugs eat plants and in fact some, like the leopard slug, actually eat slugs that do. They are key composters, breaking down decaying matter, they help disperse seeds and spores and they provide delicious treats for amphibians, birds and mammals. But some do eat my basil and that’s just not acceptable! So to control them, here’s some wildlife friendly tips
Attract frogs and toads – build a pond, but make sure it has shallow edges so hedgehogs don’t fall in, and provide escape routes should it happen.
Attract hedgehogs – make a shelter and leave some wild areas, piles of leaves and undisturbed undergrowth so that hedgehogs can nest in your garden.
Attract birds – birds love to eat slugs and snails, trees and hedgerows provide areas for birds to roost and nest, as do carefully positioned nest boxes.
Compost – compost heaps are great for wildlife and applying homemade compost to your soil will keep it healthy and will nurture stronger plants more resistant to attack
Hoe regularly – to keep your beds weed free and to dig up any slug eggs that may be under the soil.
Create raised vegetable beds with an overhanging ‘lip’ – slugs and snails will find it more difficult to reach the plants
Natural traps – beer, broken eggshells, coffee grounds, sharp gravel or pet hair around susceptible plants will deter slugs and snails
Hand pick – feed slugs and snails to local chickens if there are some nearby
© Helen Babbs / The Wildlife Trusts
This article appears in the November issue of Kitchen Garden magazine
There are 47 local Wildlife Trusts across the UK, the Isle of Man and Alderney. The Wildlife Trusts are the largest UK voluntary organisation dedicated to conserving the full range of the UK’s habitats and species whether they be in the countryside, in cities or at sea. www.wildlifetrusts.org