They may be public enemy number one to the nation’s gardeners, munching through fortunes spent on herbaceous perennials and fresh lettuce every summer, but Chris Packham has a message for gardeners: leave your slugs alone.
“The slug’s been offered a free banquet. You have to expect it to eat it. If you’re planting a row of lettuce, you’re planting a free supermarket for molluscs. If you turned up at Sainsbury’s and they said, ‘And everything today is free,’ you’d fill your basket, wouldn’t you? That’s what humans would do. So put yourself in the mind of the slug. You have to find a degree of tolerance, find ways of managing slugs without killing them.
“If you make draconian choices like ‘I don’t want slugs and snails to eat my plants’, then you’re doing yourself out of hedgehogs, slow worms and song thrushes and that’s a tragic loss to the garden. The song of the thrush is the closest you’re going to get to a nightingale in the 21st- century British garden.”
With talk like that it’s easy to see why Packham considers that patch of grass attached to the back of your house to be a spectacular ecosystem swarming with thousands of species of animals and birds – an Eden on your doorstep.
“Gardens are an important environment for many animals and birds now because of the problems with the wider countryside, you don’t get intensely farmed gardens. There’s an enormous abundance of animals.”
So what else can you do to encourage these ecosystems? Packham also suggests you cut a hole in your fence to let the hedgehogs walk through safely. “If they have to go out the front gate and onto the road to get to the next garden, they get run over.”
You should also put a bell on your cat’s collar to warn wildlife they’re on the prowl, and build a pond to encourage amphibians. It’s also a good idea to keep a compost heap, not to mention lots of flowers full of nectar. It seems wildlife thrives not in wild, rambling gardens but, instead, in well-kept, tidy gardens.
“If you just let your garden go, it doesn’t top the list in terms of diversity,” says Packham. “I put a lot of effort into my garden. I actively plant in my garden. I have nectar from the very beginning to the end of the year, and my lavender is coming out and that’ll keep the bees busy for the next four weeks. Our gardens are valuable to huge numbers of species.
Chris Packham’s top garden tips
1. Trees And Bushes
The garden is like the edge of a wood with all its greenery. It attracts woodland dwellers like tits, thrushes, robins, which we now think of as garden birds, because they’ve adapted and made it their own.
The king of the compost heap is the ground beetle, a ferocious predator of smaller predators that eat things in there. It’s crucial in the food chain. A thrush will hop on to the compost heap and eat the ground beetle; then a sparrowhawk might swoop in and kill the thrush.
We’ve always treated gardens as marginal habitats, but they’re now an important place for urban foxes, which have become part of the ecosystems round the back of our houses.
They’re in critical decline. Don’t use slug pellets in your garden. The slugs eat them, then hedgehogs eat the slugs and that’s the end. Put food out for them, and give them a hedgehog box for shelter.
The pond will create a new food chain. Dragonfly larvae eat tadpoles which eat algae. As soon as the dragonfly emerges as an adult, if there’s a lucky magpie on the fringes of the pond, it’s going to eat it. There’s lots going on!
Don’t kill slugs, learn to tolerate them — plant in areas where there are fewer slugs, or where they are less able to reach plants.
Put a bell on their collars so that they don’t kill so many animals. Sixty million songbirds are killed every year by cats. Put bird feeders out of sight of cats, too.
Gardeners can add to biodiversity by building a pond. Animals breed in it — fish, amphibians and diving beetles.
Put a mammal feeding station just over the fence so your dog can’t eat the food you leave for the badgers. They also need somewhere private to give birth to their young.
The British Garden: Life and Death on Your Lawn is on Tuesday 9.00pm BBC4