Slugs and snails will no longer be classed as pests by the Royal Horticultural Society, despite their reputation as a garden menace.
Britain’s leading garden charity says that although the gastropods are the garden visitor about which they receive most complaints, they should be considered an important part of the garden ecosystem.
In fact, the slimy creatures are misunderstood, as only nine of the 44 recognised species of slug in the UK eat garden plants, according to research by the RHS.
They also “play an important role in planet friendly gardening and maintaining a healthy ecosystem”, according to the charity’s principal entomologist, Andrew Salisbury.
Slugs are nature’s recyclers according to the RHS, clearing dead matter from the garden, and are also important food for more beloved garden guests including hedgehogs and birds. Some species even get rid of algae from greenhouses.
In instances where slugs cause unwanted damage to plants, more “ethical” modes of intervention have been advised by scientists at the organisation. This could include using mulch, or planting species the slugs prefer to eat near prized blooms to attract them to those plants instead.
Salisbury said: “The RHS is all too aware of the role that gardens have in supporting biodiversity and as such will no longer label any garden wildlife as ‘pests’. Instead, there will be greater consideration of and focus on the role that slugs, aphids and caterpillars play in a balanced garden ecosystem along with more popular wildlife (or animals) such as birds, hedgehogs and frogs.”
The charity will be trying to do “positive PR” for invertebrates, including aphids, ants and ladybirds, which have tended to be destroyed in gardens in recent decades – often under the advice of garden experts.
Their entomologists will also remind gardeners that maligned insects such as wasps eat flies, aphids and caterpillars, which can cause problems in gardens, so should be welcomed. Although many fear earwigs, these also reduce aphid numbers.
Caterpillars are vital food for birds; blue tits, for example, hatch when caterpillars are at their most numerous.
In a comment piece for the Guardian, Salisbury adds: “We are never going to eliminate slugs, aphids, caterpillars and other plant-munching invertebrates from our gardens – their existence after all predates the garden itself – and our plots are all the more lively and valuable because of them.
“Amid the climate and biodiversity emergencies, now is the time to gracefully accept, even actively encourage, more of this life into our gardens.”
This is a big departure for the RHS, which each year releases a list of “top garden pests” complained about by their members. Instead, the charity will now focus more on the threats to gardens posed by invasive species and climate change.
Many invasive species and plant diseases thrive in milder, wetter climates, especially if there is not much winter frost to kill them off. This is the climate the UK is moving towards, according to scientists.
Chelsea flower show, which is run by the RHS, last year featured many biodiversity-themed gardens, as designers had a more relaxed attitude to neatness and planting. Gardens at the event contained plants commonly thought of as weeds, and piles of dead wood to attract wildlife.
How to keep slugs from eating your plants
If slugs and snails are causing problems with your favourite plants, the RHS has provided some gastropod-friendly methods to remove them gently.
Slugs love a young, vulnerable seedling, so transplant sturdy plantlets grown in pots. These can then be given some protection with cloches.
The leaf-munching creatures are excellent for compost heaps as they get rid of dead and decaying matter, helping turn your waste into lovely compost. So why not go out with a torch on a mild evening while the weather is damp, and hand pick slugs into a container? These can then be placed either into a compost heap, where they can feast on all your garden waste, or near less vulnerable plants.
Some gardeners do strategic planting, making sure to put plants slugs find delicious near their favourite plants so these are eaten instead.
Why not dig a pond to encourage frogs, which will do slug elimination for you without the guilt of setting down poison pellets or drowning them in beer. It’s better for the ecosystem, too.
Encourage birds with a bird feeder – especially during spring when the young can be fed with a juicy snail.
Raking over soil and removing fallen leaves during winter can allow birds to eat slug eggs that have been exposed.