Birds do it, bees do it, even fleas

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WHALES do it, quails do it, even old romantic snails do it: let’s do it, let’s fall in love. So goes the old song, with apologies for new libretto.

When slugs do it, they hug so hard they nearly squeeze the breath out of their bodies as shown in my photograph taken at night on my back door.

I was outside star-watching and listening to the grunts of badgers when I came upon this fine pair of leopard slugs procreating. When they do it they let everything hang out. They are of course hermaphrodite so both sets of genitalia are on view. The act takes them most of the night, but it has to be warm and damp and late August seems to be the party time in all the year.

This happens every year and sometimes I have seen much more spectacular events with what appears to be an enormous white parachute twice their size spread across the glass. Very few people have ever seen this extraordinary sight and even fewer believe me when I have told them how slug families are made.

You can see why, or one of the reasons why, I can’t grow vegetables in this wood, as the previous incumbent, a gamekeeper, used to do back in the 1950s. He probably used soot to keep the armies of slugs and snails away from his lettuces. I refused ever to use slug pellets because this killed off the song thrushes when I tried this final solution back in the 1970s. But I also have the problem of deer in the garden, and yellow-necked mice. Therefore I am in the happy position of letting nature go wild and the leopard slugs together with the garden snails slide happily all over my back door to their hearts’ content.

The snails fire small calcareous darts at each other to stimulate one another and these needle-thin projectiles about quarter of an inch long can sometimes be found where the action has taken place. These are the origin of Cupid’s arrow. 80,000 species of slugs and snails have so far been named on the planet.

Some shells of snails are as exquisite as birds’ eggs and people have made collections of the empty shells. My grandfather collected pond snail shells and downland snails when he was living at Walberton Park near Arundel.

But he would not have given slugs and snails living space. He was a keen gardener and later when his family fortune failed in the Great War he took on the task of feeding his young family of four children from his own garden produce. Slugs and snails would have been obliterated. As were any rabbits, pheasants, partridges and even corncrakes and moorhens.

He caught eels, prawns, dabs, sea bass and carp for the dinner table. If he had lived in this house he would have cleared this garden of most living things that were not of use.

“Confounded things, slugs,” he would have said.

“No right to be here at all.”

Richard Williamson Nature Notes