This article is for all those people out there who are under regular attack from the cursed slug. If you live in Great Britain or North Wales like I do, you know all to well about these little beasts. 2012 was a year of slug plagues for most gardeners in the UK due to the wet and humid weather which provided ideal breeding conditions. And with climate change these wet, humid summers are not likely to go away, so it’s best to get prepared.
Slug plagues are of course a symptom of an unbalanced ecosystem in that their natural predators and parasites are not abundant enough to balance the slug population. A balanced ecosystem takes time to establish so slugs can be a big problem in newly created permaculture gardens, especially when mulch is used. I would like to tell you about the fastest most entertaining and resourceful way of getting rid of your slugs.
After trying the traditional methods of using beer and orange peel traps, but still finding severed pumpkins and courgettes, I took to going out in the dead of night with a torch in the rain hunting down the little blighters and collecting them after catching them in the act of munching on virtually everything — including herbs that where planted to deter them. I caught hundreds using this method but what to do with them once I had caught them was the problem and I couldn’t keep going out every night hunting slugs.
After the news of my slimy blight got around, a box of blue Indian Runner Duck eggs appeared on my kitchen table. I had been assured by a friend that Indian Runners love slugs and don’t make a mess of the garden. I was doubtful because years previously, after hearing Bill Mollison’s advice that “no one has a slug problem, they have a duck deficiency”, I got myself some Pekin Ducks that refused to eat any slugs and just ate my courgettes instead. After that, I gave up hope on ducks. Admittedly, the breed Bill recommended was a Khaki Campbell. I didn’t take this advice because I had a friend that kept his Khaki Campbells fenced in because they ate his crops as well as the slugs.
I no longer have a slug problem, just two very fat ducks that come running when on the odd occasion I find a very unlucky slug. Slugs are their favourite food and so I have gone from having thousands of slugs to virtually none. This transformation happened within just a few days. They will eat as many slugs as you can throw at them and the beauty of it is that they convert slugs to eggs, which feed me, and guano which feeds the garden.
So, now my slugs are a resource.
Indian runners are the ducks for the job. They don’t like swimming, so they won’t ruin your pond and they don’t eat your greens either — but they do like to eat green caterpillars. You can leave them free to roam and they make a very entertaining garden companion as they follow me around begging for slugs and eating any insects that I happen to unveil. However, my ducks were trained in being super-effective pest munchers, so I don’t know how they would fare if just left to their own devices, without any training. For your help I have included a section on training your Indian Runners to be excellent slug guzzlers.
Ducks following me eating slugs
How many ducks do you need?
I have two ducks roaming over a 3rd of an acre veggie garden as well as a huge courtyard. With this number I trust them completely to free range. I am planning on getting two more females, which I believe will do more good than harm. It is easier to train them and keep them under control the fewer ducks you have, although you could have a temporary pen to keep them under control when needs be.
Obtaining Indian Runners
You can buy Indian Runner eggs very simply online, from sites such as E-bay, and they can be delivered to your door. Make sure you get a reputable egg supplier to ensure your ducks will be healthy and you will have a high egg hatching rate. You may also be able to obtain them from a farmers’ market or poultry rearer in your area. If you choose to get a mallard, then only have one to as many females as possible as they can cause considerable stress to females.
Normally your local farmer will know who to borrow an incubator from. You can easily ply him with cake to make him more obliging. This will also be useful in the future when you need his straw. Ensure the incubator is spotlessly clean using 1 in 5 dettol mix then thoroughly rinse afterwards. It is very important that your eggs remain pathogen free as they are very vulnerable to infection.
Always handle your eggs with clean hands. Discard any that have breaks or fractures as they could pass disease on to the other eggs.
Keep the eggs cool at around 18.33 degrees Celsius until you are ready to incubate them. Before you put your eggs in the incubator run it for day or two to ensure the temperature stays at precisely 37.5 degrees Celsius. Place a bowl of water in the incubator to keep the environment humid — this is essential for ducklings. Rotate the eggs at least once a day laying them on their sides and rotating them 160 degrees. This ensures the ducklings don’t stick to the side of the shell. Open the incubator as little as possible during incubation to ensure the desired temperature and humidity is maintained.
Within two days you will be able to see which eggs are fertilised. You can do this by holding a powerful torch to them — you should see a shadow inside. This is the development of the blastodisc. Discard any unfertilised eggs as these could spread infection to the others. You can watch the development of the eggs using the torch but be warned, only do this when you are turning to avoid loss of humidity and temperature in the incubator.
After 25-28 days you should start to hear cheeping and may see the first crack appearing. Increase the humidity by adding another bowl of water so that there is actually condensation in the incubator. The eggs need to be really moist if they are to hatch. They can take up to 24 hours to hatch so be patient. You can help them by placing a wet tea towel around them which will help them to break free of the shell.
If the chicks take longer than 24 hours after first beginning to break free of the shell then you can help by using a pair of tweezers to pull back tiny fragments of shell with the aim of revealing the beak. Only take off tiny fragments and do not proceed if the fragment has red veins on it, as doing so will kill the chick at this stage.
Once the beak is free you can help the chick by gently feeding it sugary water on a spoon. This will give it more energy for the rest of its breakout. Some duck breeders will say if it can’t hatch itself then it won’t survive anyway and that you should never intervene. However I had to intervene with my chicks and they are now healthy and strong ducks and I have met people who have done the same with success. As long as you follow the precautions and provide suitable after care I believe that it is safe.
Helping the duckling out the egg and spoon feeding with sugar water
Wet duckling newly hatched
Dry day old ducklings that already seem to have grown
After-care of chicks
After they are born, put them in a dry box with newspaper and keep them warm at around 37.5 degrees Celsius. If you don’t have a heat lamp or suitable heater then a normal lamp will do. Mount it over the box so the chicks can go under it at will or move away if they are too warm. Ensure that the lamp does not overheat the box and start a fire. Put a shallow bowl of water in with the chicks in the opposite corner to the heat source. You will need to show them how to drink — do this by gently lifting the bowl to their beaks or use a spoon to encourage them to drink. They soon learn.
Remember captive-bred ducks such as Indian Runners lack many of the natural instincts. They will be hungry, so feed them chick mash mixed with water. You can get this online or from pet stores. Keep the box clean and dry. After one week you will be amazed at how much they have grown. You can now take away the heat lamp as long as the temperature remains at around 20 degrees Celsius.
The ducks are very hardy once they have their adult feathers. And will happily live in any shelter that is dry and fox-proof — providing that they can get into it, as they are not great climbers and will just fall straight off a ramp. But, they can handle steps.
If you want the ducks to lay in the same place as they sleep, ensure that it is dark and sheltered and provide bedding. The cheapest and most reliable way of getting cheap bedding is by calling up your local tree surgeon and ask them for their wood chips. They will give you this free of charge as they usually have to pay to dispose of it. The beauty of wood chips is that you layer it and it starts to break down in the hutch and may even provide additional warmth depending on the size of the hutch. I also found a thriving worm population living in the wood chips, which provided a tasty treat for the ducks when I was cleaning their hutch out. Wood chips are great added to a compost pile and used as mulch around trees.
Here are some examples of the shelters that I created for them. I downsized after deciding I would actually need less birds.
The first duck house is too big for what I need
The new duck house, complete with stairs — the chickens lie in the back half of it
How to train them
After two weeks take the ducklings out into the garden. They should follow you by now. Turn over rocks and look around ravaged plants for slugs and feed them directly to the ducks. If you whistle when you feed them or make a particular noise they will associate this with slug-time after a few days of repetition. Feed them lots of little slugs to start with and as they grow bigger, increase the size of the slugs. If you have snails, smash them with a rock first and then feed them to the ducks. The ducks will now follow you around the garden and you can feed them the various pests as you go.
Ducklings getting used to hanging out with me, they had a natural
tendency to want to sit on my lap.
How to get slugs where you want them
If you pile up rocks near your vegetables, or leave damp logs, the slugs will hide underneath. Orange peel is also a favoured hiding place. When you’re with the ducks, turn these hiding places over and feed the slugs too them. You can also point the slugs out to them and they will soon learn to pick them off themselves. Do the same with caterpillars — picking them off at first and feeding them to the ducks, and then showing the ducks where they are. After a while of feeding the ducks and whistling them you will be able to call them over to you when you find a slug in the garden and they will know what to look for when they come to you.
The ducks eating slugs and insects as I move cobbles
Feeding the ducks when there are no slugs left
I feed the ducks on a varied diet to ensure they get all the nutrients they need, although it seems they would only eat slugs if given the opportunity. They also get kitchen scraps such as rice, pastry, cake, porridge and pasta, but they do not like greens. I supplement this with worms from my worm farm. I feed the worms the rest of my kitchen scraps apart from orange peel and onions. And I also supplement them with organic layers pellets to ensure they have got everything they need in their diet.
The worm farm
Lots baby worms thriving in kitchen scraps
The adult worms fit for eating