The way we choose to describe the world often determines how we react to it. A different view of garden gastropods might be better for all
Slugs and snails regularly appear on lists of the most irritating garden pests; only last year the Royal Horticultural Society noted they had slid to the top after a few seasons hiding near the bottom. But the RHS this month announced that it will no longer consider them as pests. In fact, all invertebrates, usually felt to interfere with gardeners’ best-laid plans, will be celebrated. Coincidentally, scientists also argued last week that British wildflowers named in the 1959 Weeds Act as injurious – and therefore subject to compulsory control – should be allowed, within reason, to thrive.
The reasons for both changes of heart are similar. Slugs and snails are an important part of a garden’s ecosystem, eating dead leaves, for instance, or being eaten by hedgehogs, toads and birds. Earwigs, wrens and dunnocks eat aphids; blue tits time breeding so that their young will find plenty of caterpillars. As for the injurious weeds, three of the five most feared (ragwort, creeping thistle, spear thistle) turn out to be far more popular with pollinators than those recommended by Defra.
How we choose to view (and name) the world determines in some important ways how we react to it. Calling slugs and snails pests is permission to capture and destroy; as for weeds, councils spend £10m eradicating them yearly. This may be in the service of human ideas of beauty or perfection or, more complicatedly, about producing food. But the result is the same.
Gardens are the oldest of metaphors. “Adam was a gardener”, as Kipling noted in his bouncy The Glory of the Garden, which extols all garden work, even “If it’s only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders”. A darker iteration of the idea occurs in the work of the late philosopher Zygmunt Bauman. He posited the “gardening state”, whereby government finds optimum conditions for some, and ejects those deemed less useful or too wild. With such a framing, Bauman was wittingly undermining the idea that rational methods based on scientific knowledge would create optimal conditions. There is now an acceptance that nature is too complex a system to be wholly tamed. There are too many interdependencies to tamper with abandon. Our ecological future depends on diversity and that requires a more relaxed approach, leading to a rewilding movement in private gardens.
Gastropods remain mostly a mystery. Of those species we know about, wrote the RHS’s Andrew Salisbury in the Guardian, “only nine of the 44 – that’s a fifth – are likely to be nibbling holes in your hosta, latching on to lettuce or burrowing into a potato”. Labelling all slugs and snails as pests militates against adopting a more harmonious view of them. “What would the world be, once bereft,” as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “of wet and of wildness? Let them be left ... Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.” But there should be enough humility to recognise that choices will still be made about which flowers should grow, which slugs can be let loose and which trees should flourish. Wildness is, for some time, likely to be organised lightly – so as not to spring a nasty surprise.