Slugs and snails are not the kind of glamorous creatures people like to identify with as animal guides. But, if we want to deal with nature as it really is, not fantasy-nature that serves our egos, then everything is worthy of attention.
Slugs and snails are without a doubt a problem for anyone growing their own veg. I had a garden once that didn’t grow anything well, except slugs; anything I put in the ground was rapidly eaten. I moved over to taller fruit bearing plants, and all was fine. That garden was also really popular with hedgehogs, and this is not a coincidence.
We’re often too quick to assess nature in terms of what it does for us. Slugs and snails do nothing for us that we recognise and value, and so we see them as pests to get rid of. They are food for many other creatures though – again, creatures who do not provide us with utility. Snails are especially important food for thrushes, who are also in decline. Smaller slugs are eaten by all sorts of birds.
Snails, taken as individuals, are rather charming. They have the capacity to hide away for long periods during dry spells, appearing in the damp apparently from nowhere. Little underworld creatures who are summoned out by the darkness and the rain. Carrying their homes with them, but still desperately fragile and all too easily killed, they have a lot of potential as symbols for anyone who wants to dig in with that. Their shells are pretty, and piles of their shells tell you that a hedgehog, or a thrush is around.
My grandmother had a garden bench, and her resident hedgehog always used to go under this to eat snails in the night. As a child I was fascinated by the piles of whitening shells.
Slugs are one of my least favourite things to touch and I have a lifelong repulsion over the feeling of them on my skin. However, they are incredible scavengers, and when it comes to tidying up, slugs are amazingly good at it. Their admittedly gross (from our perspective) eating habits are a major contributor to the ground around us not being covered in a thick layer of horrible things. I’ve seen them eating shit. They get in for dead things that nothing else will touch – plant and creature alike. When one of them has been trodden on, another will come along and tidy it away. They are masters of decay and deconstruction.
Slugs and snails, like so many other creatures, invite us to examine our priorities. They aren’t here for us. They don’t serve us. It’s not all about us. We destroy ecosystems because we only see the world in terms of how it serves us directly, and this is something we need to get over, if we are going to continue as a species. We need to see the good in things without them having to be specifically good for us.