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Slug numbers down after UK heatwave and driest summer since 1976





Slug numbers appear to have shrivelled in the UK's prolonged hot, dry summer, say wildlife experts, with the ongoing drought being blamed for their demise.

The slippery pests, while often a slimy thorn in the side of gardeners, play a vital role in ecosystems - improving the health of the soil and providing an ordinarily buoyant food source for other small animals including hedgehogs.

Despite an absence of firm data which seldom records slug numbers, wildlife experts devoted to the conservation of invertebrates believe the significantly lower numbers being anecdotally reported is because the species has become a victim of this year's drought.

Slugs rely on moist damp conditions in order to thrive. Image: iStock.
Slugs rely on moist damp conditions in order to thrive. Image: iStock.

Relying on damp, moist conditions in order to thrive and breed, the UK's most recent summer with three very significant heat periods and very little rainfall has resulted in a struggle to survive in the parched conditions and roasting hot ground.

Between January and July, England had only 69% of its average rainfall making it the driest such period since 1976 - while the country also surpassed the 40C threshold for the first time.

Parched land is a common sight after the UK has faced its driest period since 1976. Picture: PA.
Parched land is a common sight after the UK has faced its driest period since 1976. Picture: PA.

Andrew Whitehouse, head of operations at Buglife, which regularly runs wildlife surveys by staff and volunteers to monitor population health among invertebrate species, said slugs numbers appear to have reacted to the exceptionally dry conditions.

He explained: "There are lower numbers around at the moment. It is likely they would have suffered during the drought."

While some, says Andrew, could be in what is known as 'suspended animation' having wriggled much deeper into the ground than normal in a desperate attempt to find damp spaces, lay dormant and wait for wetter weather above, he suspects many haven't survived at all.

"There will be some that won't survive that and there will be some eggs that won't survive" he added.

The drought has seen ponds dry up and river levels drop, all affecting wildlife
The drought has seen ponds dry up and river levels drop, all affecting wildlife

The drought has seen record-low river and reservoir levels, caused ponds to dry up, and led to numerous hosepipe bans by water companies across England, many of which still remain in place.

Andrew Whitehouse said while gardeners may be relieved to see less of their land being ravaged by slugs, their ability to chew and break down dead plants and vegetation means that they play a crucial role in returning nutrients back to the soil, which in turn contributes to the overall health of future crops.

Despite their reputation as a pest, slugs pay a vital role in the UK's ecosystem (59637253)
Despite their reputation as a pest, slugs pay a vital role in the UK's ecosystem (59637253)

Alongside this, hedgehogs which hibernate in winter, as well as birds, beetles, toads and frogs all feed on slugs which traditionally are a readily available food source.

He added: "I can see how lots of people would hear this news and think 'oh great'.

"But fewer slugs would mean less food. The impact goes a lot wider than just the slugs.

"If they are in trouble we need to pay attention to it."

Hedgehogs, which hibernate in winter, feed on slugs. Image: Stock image.
Hedgehogs, which hibernate in winter, feed on slugs. Image: Stock image.

Describing the creatures as 'resilient beasts' staff at Buglife expect numbers to steadily recover over the autumn and winter.

However, says Andrew, should the UK experience prolonged drought-like conditions and drier, hotter weather on a more regular basis there would be much greater cause for concern as the species simply wouldn't have the time to recover.

Buglife says slugs play a vital role in our ecoystem returning healthy nutrients back into the soil. Image: PA.
Buglife says slugs play a vital role in our ecoystem returning healthy nutrients back into the soil. Image: PA.

"They are able to respond quite rapidly" he added. "But if every summer we have a prolonged drought it will be having an impact."

In the meantime, anyone with a small patch of land who is happy to encourage numbers back into their garden as the rain returns, should focus on building a log pile or stack and leaving it to rot - creating the ideal breeding ground for not just slugs, but also beatles, frogs and toads.

In the absence of slugs, hedgehogs also enjoy a diet of worms, caterpillars and beetles if available, but the RSPCA says people can leave out food and fresh water that supplements a hog's natural diet.

Its website recommends foods like tinned dog or cat food or crushed cat or dog biscuits, which need to be soaked in water if there's young around. Good quality, meaty hedgehog food is also available from wildlife food suppliers, says the charity, but households are asked to stay away from offering hedgehogs milk and bread.



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