|Ornamented metal-work spotted while on holiday
Hands up! Who’s guilty of hurling a snail over the wall into a neighbor’s garden? A recent survey by the RHS revealed that a fifth of those questioned admitted to such an act, with Londoners being the most likely and Scots the least likely (another reason for Scottish independence?!) Shortly after I’d heard about this survey, I discovered a book called A Slow Passion which was to become my holiday reading. Forget about Mills & Boon bodice-rippers, this was the tale of granny Ruth Brooks and her investigation into the alleged homing instinct of snails. It was a totally accessible read and a real page-turner. I was gripped!
Snails, and their fellow gastropods slugs, are generally quite reviled for the damage they exact in the garden. A quick straw poll of gardeners that I know suggests a preference for the snail, given a choice. One friend tells me it’s due to the two textures of a snail that makes stamping on them all the more satisfying, the crunch yielding to a delightful squish! Another, less murderous explanation, was that snails appear more refined, their shells affording them greater modesty than the naked slug which is more brazen in its mucosity. Some slugs do have shells, however: the Testacellidae family, of which there are three species in the British Isles, have an insignificant shell that sits towards the tail-end of the slug’s body – a kind of fig leaf of modesty.
Whether it’s slugs or snails who are favoured, people tend to regard them as outright pests, and stock up on slug pellets and copper tape with a view to slime-icide. Yet not all belly-foots do damage in the garden. Comparatively few species are keen to eat their greens. In this respect they are similar to humans! Some are detrivorous, feeding on dead organic matter. These are handy in the compost heap, helping to break down our kitchen and garden waste into humus. The Garlic Glass Snail (Oxychilus alliarius
) is one such detrivore. It is a small snail with a translucent, flattened shell and gives off a strong whiff of ramsons when handled. Along with compost bins, it haunts the darkness under logs and stones. Another mollusc posing no threat to horticultural efforts is the Yellow Slug (Limax flavus
). It slicks around in cellars and out-houses, grazing mainly on rotting matter and mould. Any living matter it may encounter is ignored. Surprisingly, not all gastropods are even vegetarian. The slugs of the the aforementioned Testacellidae family are carnivorous, dining on earthworms. Capturing their prey by its tip using a ‘toothed’ tongue, the hapless worm is then slowly slurped down into this belly-foot’s belly.On the basis of the voracious activity of a few culprits, all slugs and snails are maligned, smeared with guilt. Maybe if we sent them over the wall more often, on holiday so to speak, we might co-exist easier. And yes, I am a Londoner!
|White-Lipped Snail (Cepaea hortensis)
Ruth Brooks, A Slow Passion: Snails, My Garden and Me (Bloomsbury, 2013)
Michael Chinery, Garden Creepy Crawlies (Whittet Books, 1986)