This post was first published on lowimpact.org.
“You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency” – Bill Mollison
There are of course many approaches to the scourge of slugs and snails in the vegetable patch. Hand picking by moonlight and beer traps have always been my methods of choice, but if you think you’d like to keep poultry, ducks can be a really effective option. Here are some of the benefits:
- It is a natural method of control; no chemicals which could be harmful to other invertebrates or the wider environment.
- Your ducks will provide eggs and meat having feasted on your garden pests, thus your slugs and snails become a valuable resource.
- Free fertilizer (again, made from digested slug!).
- Ducks won’t obliterate the slug population overnight, as might occur with nematode treatment or pellets.*
- Ducks love the wet and forage best in the rain, just the time when the slugs are out and about and happily crawling over your soggy coffee grounds and eggs shells (which don’t work so well in the rain)
- You won’t need to mow the lawn as often; the ducks will keep it short.
- Hours of feathery fun and entertainment
*Believe it or not, this rapid result can be a problem; the corresponding dip in slug predator numbers quickly resulting in a boom in the slug population.
What about chickens?
In general, ducks will eat more slugs and do less damage to your vegetables. Chickens will eat a few slugs but quickly become bored of them, and will find your vegetables much more interesting, eating them or scratching up the roots. Chickens can be very effective slug control, however, if you release them into bare vegetable beds over the winter; they love seeking out slug eggs and will put a big dent in the population the following year.
Another thing to note about chickens is that they hate the rain and will be huddled under shelter while the slugs are out enjoying the weather and feasting on your veggies. They are also much better escape artists than ducks, sometimes flapping over even quite high fences to get to your vegetables.
Are there any downsides?
- Ducks prefer slugs and snails but they may eat some of your leafy vegetables, one of my friends reports his ducks love brassicas, they will also trample small seedlings.
- Their poo is slimy, and they poo everywhere!
- You have to look after them; feed them, provide them with clean water, clean out their house and shut them in at night to protect them from predators.
- They make a mess of your wildlife pond and eat your frogs (which were themselves keeping down the slugs)
Some people find it works fine to have ducks free ranging in their garden, perhaps temporarily fencing off vulnerable plants. Depending on the breed, ducks can often be deterred by a low temporary fence or by growing vegetables in raised beds. Distraction can also be effective; Darius Namdaran of Park road Permaculture Project finds his ducks much preferred munching on a bed of chamomile than on his vegetables. Other people only allow their ducks access to the vegetable garden, for a limited time, or while supervised.
This is an important question, some breeds of duck have more of a taste for slugs (and less of a taste for vegetables) that others. On that basis the most recommended breeds are the Indian Runner and the Khaki Campbell. Some sources suggest that the Indian Runner is a better forager and that the Khaki Campbell will make more of a mess in the pond and the garden, however those I have spoken to who keep both breeds find little to choose between them. Both breeds are good egg layers, though the Khaki Campbell is more prolific. One final consideration is that, while both breeds generally do not fly, Khaki Campbells more often prove an exception to this rule and are more likely to get into the habit of fluttering over low fences.
Another option is the Call duck, they will produce fewer eggs, and may not eat so many slugs but they are a small duck, can work well in a small garden and can even be compatible with a wildlife pond, if it is fairly large. At Garden Cottage, a permaculture project in Coldstream, Call ducks free range in the forest garden with a wildlife pond.
Training your Ducks
Ducks are creatures of habit and can be trained. If you want them to slug hunting machines get them started early:
1. Feed them slugs and snails as treats (cracking the snail shells at first so they can eat them, once they are adults they will swallow the snails whole).
2. Make a distinctive noise when ever you give them a treat, they will learn to associate this noise with food (see the video below)
3. Take them out in the garden with you and show them where to look for slugs and snails. Make their food noise whenever you find one and they will come running!
You can find an excellent and detailed blog article here on how to raise and train runner ducks.
My ducks come running to get slugs when they hear their special food noise
I’m sold! How do I get started?
As with keeping any animal do your research first. You could start by having a look at Lowimpact.org’s keeping ducks section here. From there you will find links to other resources. Visit some duck keepers if you can so you can get an idea of the different set ups people use. You don’t need a pond, just a large enough container for your ducks to splash around in e.g. a baby bath or paddling pool.
You can buy your ducks as fertile ducks eggs ducklings or adult ducks. In some cases it can be hard to find your chosen breed, there are few Indian Runner ducks available in Scotland for example. In this case your only option may be to incubate and hatch out fertile eggs, with a bit of research this is not difficult to do.