Showbiz Slugs

Last November I joined 59 other volunteers in a project monitoring the slugs in our gardens. Our Slug Count Survey was being run by the lovely Imogen as part of her PhD with the RHS and Newcastle University. Once every 4 weeks we had to go out into our gardens and collect all the slugs we could find in half an hour. We’d then attempt to identify them, before posting them off to Imogen for “proper” identifications.

This year has flown passed for any number of reasons, but I still can’t believe my year of slug counting is already up. It took a bit of explaining to my neighbours as to why I went out each month with a head torch in the dark to wander round the garden with a bucket of carrot shavings (food for the slugs) for half an hour, not to mention explaining to the lovely lady in the post office why I was posting slugs! I actually found it really interesting to go out in the garden after dark and just look at what was around. I was used to going out to check on the moth trap, or feed the hedgehogs, but tended to be focussed on those activities. Searching for slugs, I noticed for the first time all the caterpillars that were out and active, the worms on the grass that vanished as they felt my footsteps approach and the spiders and woodlice and all manner of other species going about their business at night. The garden at night becomes a whole other world.

In total over the 13 counts, I sent off an amazing 1145 slugs! You’d think that might have reduced the population in my garden, but they are still very abundant. Going out the night after a count there seemed to be just as many slugs roaming the garden as before, with no sign of diminishing populations.

And the slugs themselves were clearly doing their bit to increase numbers.  Through September there were several nights when I saw pairs of large Arion slugs trailing each other round the grass. There is clearly a season for it, as I saw multiple pairs for a couple of weeks, but none before or since.

Whatever romancing was involved, it was clearly successful and I can presumably expect more Arion slugs next year.

As well as getting to see a bit of slug romance, I was really chuffed to film one of the Arion slugs getting its wriggle on. This squirming action in the video below is a characteristic feature of a couple of Arion species when disturbed.

The total number of species recorded has yet to be finalised (some are apparently getting sent for DNA analysis!), but is probably around 14. There were at least 4 species of short-keeled slugs, including this Ambigolimax sp.

There were at least 7 species of round-backed slugs including the familiar large Arion species. Finally there were 3 species of the long-keeled slugs. The one below is the Crimean Keeled Slug (Tandonia cristata) which has a network of dark lines criss-crossing the body.

My most unusual find was a Worm Slug (Boettgerilla pallens), another long-keeled slug, which as the name suggests looks like a worm! I only found 1 in all the surveys.

Finding the worm slug was good, but the best was yet to come. Our survey leader appeared on BBC’s Gardener’s World in July to try and convince the (possibly sceptical) viewing public of the delights of slugs. As part of the feature there was footage of several specimens. I was beyond excited when she told me that one of my actual slugs had been filmed for the show. Here’s a still from iPlayer showing my very own slug TV star (a Netted Field Slug, Deroceras reticulatum).

Not only did my slug feature, but it was described as being one of the biggest pest species, doing the most damage to plants. I don’t know why, but I felt ridiculously pleased that I’d got effectively the bad boy of the slug world!

So all in all this slug project has been fascinating. I love doing these citizen science projects. You usually learn something new, or see something new and either way you get the pleasure of enjoying some aspect of nature whilst contributing hopefully useful data to scientists. This particular project has given me a whole new appreciation for slugs, a group I’d previously given little thought to. I know they are not popular with gardeners and they can be a worry for those with hedgehogs in their gardens (slugs can carry parasites such as fluke and lungworm which can pass to the hedgehogs). But everything has its place and slugs have just as much right to be in a garden as everything else.

 

2020 – The Year of the Pond

Well there are probably lots of ways to describe 2020, but most of those aren’t repeatable on what tries to be an upbeat blog. So I will gloss over the obvious and instead try and focus on the many good things that happened in the last year.

First and foremost was that we finally managed to put in a new pond. The timing for this couldn’t have been better – the pond went in during February and of course in March we went into lockdown. Having the pond to sit by and watch develop through those long months was a real sanity-saver. It was amazing how quickly the wildlife moved in and as it matures I’m sure it will only get better.

A real highlight and sense of achievement came at the end of May when George, the Eyed Hawkmoth I’d reared from an egg, finally emerged. I’d been nurturing him for 10 months since I’d found the egg in the moth trap and so I felt like a proud mum when he emerged and flew off into the night. Hopefully there will be sons and daughters of George in flight this summer too.

Another moth related achievement was the creation of our Moon Garden – an area planted specifically to attract moths. And it worked. 39 new moth species were recorded, bringing the running total for the garden to 405. Best of all it attracted a Dark Crimson Underwing – believed to be the first record for this species for the whole of the West Midlands.

2020 turned out to be a good year for butterflies too. Between lockdowns, we managed to add 2 more species (Silver-spotted Skipper and Black Hairstreak) in our mission to see all the British butterflies. We also noted 2 new species for the garden (Silver-washed Fritillary & Brown Argus), although this was more by luck than good management.

The new bee hotels provided lots of interest and again we added 2 species to our garden count (Willughby’s Leafcutter and a Sharp-tailed Bee). Being able to watch both Red Mason & Leafcutter bees build their nests in the tubes was really fascinating.

Despite lockdowns, we still managed to take part in various citizen science projects – including Big Butterfly Count & Garden Moth Scheme. A new project this year is the Slugs Count project.  This is a monthly survey of the garden for slugs and it’s been great (trying) to get to grips with a whole new group.

As I do every year, I’d made various wildlife resolutions at the start of 2020. Of course back in January none of us had any idea of how the year was going to turn out! Not surprisingly the Covid imposed restrictions had an impact on some of my resolutions, but at least this year I’ve got a really good excuse for not completing them all! So here were last year’s targets:

  • New pond – well at least we smashed this one. Many thanks to Gwyndaf the Cycling Gardener who was the one who did all the hard work digging, while we sat back and reaped the rewards.
  • Create a Moon Garden. I think we pretty much nailed this one too. The Moon garden was a big success both aesthetically and for the moths.
  • See 2 more species of British Butterfly. For a while it seemed touch and go whether we would achieve this one. Our planned trip to Norfolk to see the Swallowtails was of course cancelled, but in the end we did manage 2 other species (always good to have a plan B). So we’ve now seen 52 of the 58 species.
  • Visit 5 new nature reserves. I think we only managed 2 new ones (Glapthorne Meadows and Aston Rowant NR), but then many of the nature reserves were closed to the public during the lockdowns, so I figure we have an excuse.
  • Go rockpooling. Had hoped to do this one in Norfolk, but of course that went out the window. Not much scope for rockpooling in Worcestershire, so this one will have to get bumped to next year.
  • Go and see some wild Ospreys. Again we were thwarted by Covid. I had hoped to go up to see the Dyfi Ospreys, but for a large part of the year we’ve not been allowed into Wales!
  • The moth tattoo! I genuinely thought this would be the year I’d get a moth tattoo – I’ve even decided it should be of George the Eyed Hawkmoth. But of course tattoo parlours were one of the first things to get closed down – so that’s my excuse at least.

So to New Year’s Resolutions for 2021. Covid may continue to thwart our efforts, but we can at least hope to enjoy as much wildlife as possible.

  • Try and video a dragonfly emerging from the pond. We had lots of dragonfly/damselfly egg laying activity in the new pond last year, so hopefully I can catch some of them emerging in the summer.
  • Expand the moon garden – it’s been great so far, but I’m hoping to double the area.
  • See 2 more species of British Butterfly. We’ve now seen 52 of the 58 species, but we’re having to go further and further afield to see the remaining ones. Fingers crossed we can see the Swallowtail in Norfolk at least this year.
  • Visit 5 new nature reserves.
  • Rockpooling. Again fingers crossed we make it to Norfolk for this.
  • Go and see some wild Ospreys – if we’re allowed back in Wales!
  • The moth tattoo!

If 2020 has taught me anything it is that I am very grateful to have a wildlife filled garden and that I am lucky it brings me so much pleasure. It must be awful for those who didn’t get the chance to enjoy wildlife this year, but then I think it would be awful in any year not find joy in the nature that is all around us if we take the time to look.

Slugs Count

Way back at the beginning of the year (when the world seemed a very different place) I saw an article asking for volunteers to count slugs. The RHS in conjunction with Newcastle University were looking for 60 people to go out into their gardens once a month and count & identify the slugs in their own gardens. Perhaps I need to get out more, but it sounded great! Since I already spend a lot of time looking at the moths, bees, dragonflies etc. in the garden, it seemed a good opportunity to learn a bit about another group. So I applied and then lockdown happened and everything went on hold.

But eventually I heard back; they’d had nearly 3000 applicants for the 60 volunteers needed, so I feel really lucky to have been chosen. Our survey packs arrived, complete with sampling containers, slug guide and pre-paid postage envelopes (the local post office are going to love me). In an ideal world we would have all met up for hands-on training, but thanks of course to COVID, we had to do all this by Zoom.

First thing I learned about identifying slugs is that it’s really hard! They are extremely variable and they either keep moving or they scrunch themselves up so that you can’t see the bits you need to see. They’re also really hard to take photos of, because again they either keep moving or they’re shiny with slime so that the camera struggles to focus.

Splitting them into the major groups seems relatively straightforward until you get very small ones.  If the breathing pore is in the front half of the mantle (the fleshy sort of saddle on their backs) then it’s one of the Arion types like the one below.

If the breathing pore is in the rear half then it’s one of the keeled slugs like the one below. So far so good.

But separating the keeled slugs is also tricky. There are long keeled slugs and 2 groups of short keeled slugs and the keels really aren’t always that obvious.

Originally it was all planned to start in June but in the end it was early November before we all did our first slug counts! A half hour search around the garden after dark yielded 116 slugs! And that’s without lifting anything up, or rummaging through leaves or plants – just scanning around with my head torch (neighbours once again convinced I’d lost it). So here they are before I’d sorted them out – a bucket of slugs.

And then all potted up with their moist capillary matting to stop them drying out and shredded carrot for the journey.

The lovely post office lady did indeed thing I was a bit odd to say the least when she asked what was in the parcels. I have since done my second count in early December; a mere 88 slugs this time. Many of the other slug count participants have been reporting only a few or even no slugs at all, but that’s clearly not an issue in our garden. I suspect it may be because our garden is so unkempt with plenty of decaying matter for them to feed on – slug paradise.

By far the commonest species so far has been Arion (Kobeltia) hortensis – the Blue-black soil slug. They’re only 2 -3 cm long, but what they lack in size they make up for in numbers; the garden is full of them.

There were also apparently some other small Kobeltia species in my samples, but I’m waiting confirmation of what those are. A few juvenile Arion subfuscus had also sneaked in undetected (by me). Differentiating between some of these is way beyond my current skills set.

The next most common species was Deroceras reticulatum, the Netted Field Slug. This is one of the slugs with a short keel. I found these short keeled slugs really hard to photograph and show the keel, so you may just have to take my word for it that there is one there.

Apparently in my samples there were also some Ambigolimax sp., but since I failed to spot these as being anything different, I don’t have any photos.

I did better with 2 species of long-keeled slugs – Tandonia budapestensis – the Budapest Keeled Slug and Tandonia cristata  – the Crimean Keeled Slug. I managed some photos of the Budapest ones (below) but seem to have got so excited when I spotted the second species that I forgot to take any photos. The keel on the Budapest ones is really nice and obvious – my kind of slug!

The only other species to get picked up in my half hour searches was a single Limacus maculatus – the Green Cellar Slug, although this specimen doesn’t look especially green.

The cellar slug above was by far the biggest slug I collected during the counts so far, but I know we have much bigger slugs in the garden like this giant Arion seen last summer.

The weather is now significantly colder (first snow today) but there are still a fair few slugs out at night. Hopefully in the coming monthly surveys I will find more species new to the garden. I’m finding the whole process fascinating and it’s opened up a whole new world of wildlife to me. Hopefully the slugs in our garden and in those of the other slug count participants will help the scientists to expand their knowledge of this understudied group.

30 Days Wild – Day 4 – Garden Bioblitz Part 2

It’s day 4 of 30 Days Wild and I spent the morning taking more photos of the wildlife for our Garden Bioblitz. I’d started the bioblitz at about 09:30 yesterday, so I was trying to cram in as many more species as I could before 09:30 this morning. This wasn’t helped by the fact that my camera has packed in (I hope temporarily) so I was having to use Chris’s camera and swap lenses back and forth.

The day started at 04:30 to beat the birds to the contents of the moth trap. I had hoped for a good haul to boost my species tally, but the trap was fairly quiet – possibly because it had been quite windy last night. Still there were some nice moths including a few of these beautiful and distinctive Angle Shades – virtually impossible to mistake these for anything else, which I like in a moth!

Star of the moth show was the Elephant Hawkmoth making a timely debut for the year in our garden. I’ll never tire of these stunning moths with their bright pink bodies. If you were to make a toy moth, I reckon this would be it.

I put a specimen of each moth in the fridge (it does no harm but keeps them calm until  you can photograph them) and went back to bed for a couple of hours. 8 o’clock though and I was back up photographing said moths, then scouring the garden for more wildlife. I hadn’t managed to photograph any birds yesterday, so I topped up the feeders and waited expectantly to see what would show up. As usual the sparrows were the first to show, landing on last year’s teasels to check things out before heading to the bird table.

The starlings and jackdaws came next, followed by the blackbirds and pigeons.

There were several no shows for birds that normally frequent the garden – no sign of the robin, wren, collared doves, great tits or gold finches. A blue tit just appeared in the last minutes to scrape into the bioblitz total. For the last few days I’d been seeing a big black bird, bigger then the jackdaws, so was disappointed initially when it didn’t show for the camera. But then I downloaded the trail camera which had been running for the last couple of days and there he was – a carrion crow.

The trail cam also picked up a couple of hedgehogs – one of which looks like our old foster hedgehog Meadow – i.e. it was a big chunky looking hog!

There were of course bees in the garden, although being a busy bee myself chasing everything else around I didn’t actually manage to get that many photos of them. But here are two favourites – a Buff-tailed Bumblebee and a Common Carder Bee.

There was also this bumblebee mimicking hoverfly (Merodon equestris).

Our snails were also being sneeky and hiding away over the last 24 hours – several species that I know we get refused to show. Fortunately both the White Lipped (top) and Brown Lipped (below) appeared out of the Pendulous Sedge to get their photos taken.

I also found three species of slug including this large yellow one and the stripy ones which I think are Iberian slugs.

I spotted this tiny nymph of the Speckled Bush Cricket, when I saw its antennae poking over the edge of a buttercup. Unfortunately the buttercup was blowing about in the wind a bit – hence the less than perfect focussing!

While turning over stones, I disturbed loads of woodlice. The top one is a Common Striped Woodlouse and the ones below that are Common Rough Woodlice. The bottom pinky one may just be a variant of the latter, but I hoping it might be a 3rd species – just waiting for someone on i-Spot to confirm one way or another.

 

Beetles are the largest insect group in the world, so it would have been a bit weird if I hadn’t found any in the garden. My favourite Swollen-thighed beetle of course appeared, but so did this lovely shiny Black Clock Beetle.

This tiny carpet beetle was making the most of the flowers.

One group I’ve never really studied is the centipedes/millipedes. This beauty turned up under an old piece of wood. I’ve yet to work out the species though (suggestions gratefully received).

So that’s a selection of our bioblitz species for 2017. As always I ran out of time, so didn’t manage to root about in the pond, or look for ants, flies, grass moths and a host of other things. It was also a bit disappointing that no butterflies or shieldbugs or ladybirds appeared in the last 24 hours, but then that’s the way it goes. The bioblitz is just a snapshot of what you can find in the garden over a day. I love that it gets me looking for groups that I don’t normally study (easy to get in a bit of a rut with the bees and moths and butterflies and forget the others sometimes) – always good to broaden my wildlife horizons.

I’m still identifying photos and gradually uploading them to the i-Record website, so I won’t know the final tally for a while yet. So far I’ve only managed to load 32 species, which apparently puts me 10th on the bioblitz league table. Sounds good until I realised the person in the top spot at the moment has 167 species – I’ve got a way to go yet!

 

30 Days Wild – Day 11

TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_11Day 11 of 30 Days Wild and last night’s drizzle has turned into today’s rain. We had planned on a trip to the Wyre Forest in the hope of seeing the Small Pearl Bordered Fritillaries – they would have been a new species for us. But no point going in the rain, not much likelihood of seeing butterflies on a day like this.

So thought I’d just go with the flow today – if it’s raining, find something to do with animals that like the rain! It may be nice weather for ducks, but our pond is too small for them. I did see a frog this morning when emptying the moth trap, but of course it was long gone by the time I decided on the wet weather plan. So what’s left? Well one thing our garden produces lots of is molluscs. And in the rain this morning it was heaving with snails and slugs.

A quick trawl round produced 5 species of snail (we have others, but they would have required more hunting than I was prepared to do in the rain).

Assorted snails

Garden SnailFirst up our largest species at Too Lazy To Weed – the Common Garden Snail (Cornu aspersum). Plenty of these today hiding amongst stones and a few intrepid individuals heading across the grass.

 

Next up two very similar species, the Brown Lipped Snail (Cepaea nemoralis) and the White Lipped Snail (Cepaea hortensis). The Brown Lipped has a brown band around the opening of the shell (top image below) and the White Lipped has (not too surprisingly) a white band at the opening (bottom image). Other than that the two species both vary hugely in colour patterns from near white, yellow, brown and all manner of stripes in between.

Brown lipped

White lipped

Fourth snail today was a Girdled Snail (Hygromia cinctella). This species is a relative newcomer to the UK, being first seen in the south in the 1950s – well it’s now reached Malvern. It has a keel or girdle round the middle, defined by a white line. (the photo below was actually taken a few months ago, because for some reason I couldn’t get today’s one to focus!)

Girdle Snail

And finally we found one of the Glass Snails (Oxychilus sp.) These glossy little snails have a blue/black body and some supposedly smell of garlic.

Glass snail

In addition to the snails, there were at least 2 slug species around. I think the big one is part of the Large Black Slug group (Arion ater agg.) When I moved it, it rolled up into almost a ball and started rocking from side to side – apparently a characteristic of this group. Not sure yet what the smaller slimmer slug is – any suggestions welcome.

Arion ater

Slug

Having assembled a selection of molluscs for the photos, I decided to do something I haven’t done since I was a child – have a snail race! My sister and I used to collect and race snails all the time (mainly when we were killing time with our friends on a Sunday afternoon in the pub garden while our parents were all inside!) I did consider inviting my sister down for the race, but figured she has probably sensibly moved on from such things, while clearly I have not!

When we were kids we would of course just race any snails. But since I am now older and if not wiser, at least a bit more knowledgeable about snails, I decided to pit one species against another. Oh yes the fun never ends in our garden! The girdled and glass snails were a bit small and the garden snail was too big, so the obvious choices for this gladiatorial contest was the Brown Lipped versus the White Lipped.

So I set up a track, with a finish line and “raced” 2 Brown Lipped against 2 White Lipped.

The finish line

Race 1

The snails of course did exactly what they used to do when we were kids – veered all over the place – they have no concept of sticking to their lanes!

 

It took a bit of time but eventually 2 snails did approach the other end of the course, although one was not technically between the finishing lines, but I decided not to be picky. In a nail biting finish, the White Lipped Snail won by an eye stalk!

 

After so much excitement, I thought perhaps it was only fair to let the garden snails have a go. Unfortunately though, they really didn’t seem to get the hang of racing and made the other racers look positively professional!

 

Don’t think you can draw too many conclusions from this non-scientific competition – pretty sure another time a Brown Lipped may well have raced ahead instead. But for today at least the White Lipped Snails were the fastest molluscs in Malvern and I was back being a kid again!

Herb Bennet 30 WEEDS

And finally today’s weed in my 30 Days of Lazy Garden Weeds is Herb Bennet or Wood Avens. I must admit I have a love-hate relationship with this one. I love 5 petals interspersed with the 5 sepals into form a star shape. But I hate the seeds – they form masses of curved or hooked seeds that are designed to stick in the fur of animals that pass by. They do of course stick in clothing (towelling dressing gowns in particular!) just as well, where they seem to burrow in only to emerge later to stick into you like a splinter! I guess no pain no gain though, so I’ll put up with the seeds for the sake of the flowers.