A discriminating solution

Joe and I were discussing hedgehogs. I don't mean Joe Gallagher. This Joe is much newer to the plots. I haven't registered his surname, so I call him Joe the Potter. A potter, as well as a gardener, is what he is.

I told him that in the 20 years I've lived in the area, I've only twice seen a hedgehog. The first was at least 12 years ago. It was running - surprisingly fast on surprisingly long legs - along the edge of Albert Drive. The second was just a couple of days before our conversation. And it was running along exactly the same pavement as the first.

When I lived in the country, hedgehogs were ubiquitous. Joe's theory is that they are rare here in the city because of the slug killer that gardeners use. Hedgehogs are supposed to eat slugs, and the pellets that rid us of slugs, he felt, also rid us of hedgehogs. I am not convinced. I think hedgehogs (unlike slugs) just prefer country living.

This whole vicinity is slug heaven. On the plots they are joined by their householder cousins, the snails. And by toads. Toads, like hedgehogs, we're told, eat slugs. They aren't eating mine.

Every so often I encounter a toad under a rhubarb leaf or in a compost clod. They, as toads do, flop away lethargically, or stare. Unenergetic, but not dead. Unharmed, apparently, by eating poisoned slugs. Or even unpoisoned ones.

One toad sat an inch from a fat, healthy-looking slug. I suggested he should justify his reputation as a slug-eater and do his duty. Evidently tongue-tied, he didn't even blink. The duo presented a model of interspecies tolerance.

Joe said he didn't approve of slug pellets. So I said perhaps he should try a particular organic brand of slug nemesis.

"I would," he said, "but I haven't managed to source it."

Now it happens that I, slug cognoscenti that I am after two decades' cohabitation with the largest colony of the dear creatures in the cosmos, do know where to obtain the said "solution." So I said I'd get him the address.

I am familiar with this stuff because I really am on the side of the organic camp, and gave it a (not entirely convincing) try last summer.

The yellowy powder, though resembling finely ground oatmeal, contains living organisms that are merciless to slugs. Or so the small print claims. It is completely harmless to everything except its intended victims.

There are some plotters who, so they tell me with tyrannical relish, simply flatten any living bug or insect they encounter, convinced that every last one of them (and there are many) is a ferocious enemy to gardening. Except earthworms, presumably, and pollinating bees.

But I have a book that convinces me, as I get to know it better, that large numbers of the minuscule characters encountered in the soil, under stones or even settled on a lettuce leaf, are perfectly friendly and don't even like vegetables.

The book is Michael Chinery's "The Natural History of the Garden" (Collins, 1977). Woodlice (like mini-armadillos) have reason to be grateful to Chinery. "They are harmless creatures," he writes, "and don't deserve to be slaughtered...."

He also discriminates between the approximately 24 kinds of British slugs, and says that "most of them prefer to eat decaying leaves" and parts of plants "not used for human consumption."

So it would seem that the indiscriminacy of both chemical and organic slug-killers may demolish the useful and harmless among slugs, along with the undoubted horrors.

Maybe what we need is a band of country hedgehogs specially trained to eat only really nasty slugs. I'm surprised someone hasn't thought of this before.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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