In praise of slugs

In the ‘Editor’s Letter’ introducing the July NI magazine about permaculture, I said I had not come across anyone with a good word to say for slugs.

That was strictly true at the time. But if the implication was that slugs are evil, rather than that I anticipated an early encounter with some of their friends, I apologise. Perhaps if I had said ‘not yet’, any misunderstanding would have been avoided.

Mary Cronin has now written from County Wicklow, Ireland, to point out that slugs ‘break down rotting vegetation. I’ve seen them at work in my compost bin. They’ll also break down meat grease.’

Roslynd Collins, from Droxford, Hampshire, adds: ‘They are wonderful in the classroom, particularly on an overhead projector transparency. Another: the big ones eat detritus and compost it. Only the little ones eat lush green plants. One more: hedgehogs.’

I knew that frogs and ducks are encouraged by permaculture because, among other things, they eat slugs. Together with hedgehogs, they might well wish to make a case for slugs, if only as their next meal.

They would probably be supported by moles, which I'm told also eat slugs. But I have a different kind of problem with moles. In the magazine I reported from the Brecon Beacons that the absence of molehills in an artificially fertilized field indicated sterility.

Philip Melland writes to me ‘as one of the few commercial farmers who reads New Internationalist’.  He assures me that, in Cornwall at least, ‘high use of artificial fertilizer and cattle slurry do not depress mole numbers, so I have moles in problem numbers’.

I should have written ‘in this particular field in the Brecon Beacons’. This would, clearly, have been closer to the absolute truth. But it might not have been worth mentioning, either.

Journalists can be tempted by definitive statements simply because they seem to make more noise. I was once even unwise enough to suggest in print that it had ‘never’ rained in the Atacama Desert.

However, the temptation to qualify every statement with weasel words needs resisting. It becomes a way of avoiding either the hard labour of digging for hard facts or the possibility of ending up in court. Once given in to, it can spread very rapidly until the point disappears altogether.

It may be that frogs, ducks, hedgehogs and moles are good because they eat slugs. Or it may be that slugs are good because they feed frogs, ducks, hedgehogs and moles. More likely, there’s no morality in nature at all.

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