Gardening: Slugs ordered off for fowl play: Ducks and worms are the latest biological weapons which could win the war against slimy pests, says Anna Pavord

Slugs are like icebergs: you see only a tenth of the problem. The bulk of the population is lurking underground - 200 slugs to every square metre of soil. It is an outrageous number and the shortage of hedgehogs in full-time work means that more survive than is healthy for hostas and delphiniums.

Zeneca, a division of ICI, has just come up with a novel way of attacking slugs in the garden, by means of nematode worms and associated bacteria. You mix the worms with water, apply them with a watering can, and they swim about in the moisture between particles of soil until they find a slug. One dose lasts six weeks.

They attack through the open pore at the back of the slug's mantle - the hump just behind the head that works as a primitive kind of lung. The bacteria infect the slug and, when it is dead, the nematode swims on to find another victim.

The slug nematode is the latest in a series of biological pest controls which include treatments for aphids, caterpillars, red spider mite, vine weevil and whitefly. The conditions in which you use them have an important bearing on the success rate. The dampness of the soil is critical if the slug nematodes are to do their job. Without moisture, they cannot move around. Warmth also matters. They are most effective when the soil is around 15C (60F), get more sluggish as the temperature drops, and give up altogether if it is less than 5C (40F). Mine is 8C (46F) at the moment.

'The nematodes work best in open, friable soils,' advises Zeneca. 'Poor results may occur in very heavy soils.'

But slugs adore heavy, clay soils, which should improve their odds in the war against the nematodes. We shall see. I need a break and am willing to risk pounds 12.99 on a packet of nematodes in the hope that this might provide it.

There is a slug haven on the bank, where the things lurk submerged like baleful hippopotamuses watching what I am up to. In the usual hiatus between my meaning to go and fetch slug pellets to protect some newly planted lush bit of greenery, and my actually doing so, the signal goes out and the slugs charge into action. End of lush greenery. Why is 'slug' so commonly used as a synonym for teenage torpor? Slugs are staggeringly energetic. And hermaphroditic to boot, which means all the energy they do not dissipate on sex is available for eating.

Sally Fallon of Wimbledon, south- west London, has a different way of dealing with slugs in the garden: a small fleet of Khaki Campbell ducks which rollick about the lawn and dibble diligently in the borders. She says they make a brilliant job of de- slugging the entire place.

'What about the plants?' you may ask. Mrs Fallon attributes slightly better behaviour to the ducks than they show. Even as she was assuring me that the only things they ever attacked were the pinks, I was watching them making short work of all the new shoots on a juicy-looking phlox. An aberration, I hope.

The present trio have been with her only since September, but she and her husband have had fowl of various sorts - guinea-fowl, geese, bantams, ducks - in the garden for almost as long as they have been in the house. Ducks, she says, are the best: tractable, stay-at-home, reliable producers of eggs. She gets one each a day from her three.

The garden is quite large, 150ft long by about 50ft wide, with trains to Waterloo running along the bottom boundary. It has a brick wall on one side and a wooden fence on the other. Lawn takes up most of the space and the trees, of which there are plenty, are productive.

At the bottom is a big walnut, then a little orchard of apples and pears, plus loganberries, tayberries and apricots. A flower border runs down in front of the wall, turning into a vegetable border about two-thirds of the way down.

The ducks' base is a portable A- frame coop on the terrace. They range free during the day, but have to be shut up at night to keep them safe from the foxes that use the railway embankment. 'The birds are entirely a part of the garden,' says Mrs Fallon. 'They add so much to it. Even if our garden were half the size, I would still keep ducks in it. Our children loved having them, too.'

'What about the neighbours?' I asked, thinking of Corky the cockerel and the row over his dawn crowing. Mrs Fallon has been luckier with her neighbours than Corky's owner. The only trouble, she said, occurred with the guinea-fowl, which used to bounce over the walls into other people's gardens and peer in at their windows. When, finally, only one guinea-fowl was left, it got very stroppy and terrorised the neighbour's dog. The solution was a dinner party at which the Fallons and their neighbours feasted on a fricassee of the ill-tempered fowl.

Water is the next thing you think of. Surely ducks need a pond to splash about in and to keep their feathers in good nick? Apparently not. In Wimbledon they have an old stone sink, which they use enthusiastically, and a plastic bowl of fresh water every day.

The present little troop is not yet quite as well trained as Mrs Fallon's last lot, which used to follow her down the garden like formation dancers, gobbling up the slugs as she lifted each stone in turn along the edge of the border. Even so, she says, she has only once noticed slug damage in the garden, and that was at the top of the runner-bean poles. Those slugs, she thought, had sneaked up the boundary wall and climbed directly on to the poles without ever having had to run the gauntlet of the ducks.

As well as their pickings, the ducks get a daily feast of chicken layer pellets and are bedded on a mixture of sawdust, leaves and mown grass. Khaki Campbells are not quite as winsome as the white Aylesburys that you see in children's picture books; they are buffish brown, smaller-bodied than the white, but are better layers, says Mrs Fallon. The Aylesburys, once bred intensively around that town for the London market, were always more of a meat bird.

The geese were the least successful of the Fallons' birds. They came to help with the lawnmowing and were supposed to keep the grass looking neat, but it happened to be 1976, year of the big drought. The grass did not grow and the geese covered the lawn in evil-smelling, slimy droppings. But the ducks, said Mrs Fallon, as they waddled flat-footed over her crocus, are paragons.

Zeneca'a slug control, sold under the brand name Nature's Friend, will be test-marketed this year in 50 garden centres around the country; pounds 12.99 will buy you an empty box and a postcard which you send off to the suppliers. They get the nematodes from breeders in the Netherlands and post them to you, alive and kicking, within the week. The sachet contains about six million nematodes, sufficient to treat 20 square metres of ground.

Ducks can be bought through Exchange and Mart or through the livestock advertisements in regional papers such as the Western Gazette.

(Photographs omitted)

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Suggested Topics
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy