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Norwich scientists leading fightback against invasion of Spanish slugs

PUBLISHED: 19:58 13 October 2013 | UPDATED: 19:58 13 October 2013

Student Rachel Ayers has been part of the team behind the citizen-science Slugwatch project.

Student Rachel Ayers has been part of the team behind the citizen-science Slugwatch project.

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Britain is under attack – and your country needs you.

Spanish slug Spanish slug

That’s the warning from scientists in Norwich, who are calling for help in tracking a particularly voracious invader: the Spanish slug.

First spotted in East Anglia in January, the species may be set to return in greater numbers this winter, so researchers at the John Innes Centre have set up a new website to track the progress of arion vulgaris across the region.

Experts have warned of “a disaster waiting to happen” if the Spanish slug establishes itself, as it causes more eating damage that other varieties and cannot be controlled with existing measures. They hope that the website, where the public can record their findings and photographs, can help to track its progress.

Dr Ian Bedford, head of entomology at the JIC, said: “The reports may give us an idea of how widespread the Spanish slug has become and whether it is breeding with our native species to form a hybrid.”

A hybrid could combine the worst of the Spanish slug with the tolerance to cold of our native species.

The Spanish slug survives many slug pellets, eats crops spared by native slugs, tolerates drier conditions, reproduces in greater numbers and eats dead animals and excrement.

The first UK report of the slug was in East Anglia, by Dr Bedford. Many slugs were seen off by the long winter, but their eggs survived.

Norwich A level student-turned-malacologist Rachel Ayers is also behind the citizen-science project.

“We want people to survey their gardens, local areas and school grounds for slugs, or they can build a trap using instructions on the site,” said the 17-year-old, a student at Notre Dame High School.

Miss Ayers said: “One of the most interesting parts of the project was learning about slugs and how to identify them. While photographing them, I found that the chestnut slug moves unexpectedly fast and this became my favourite species.”

As well as creating the website, she developed Top Trump cards for use in schools. She worked on the project during a Nuffield research placement and used her report on it to achieve the top award in a British Science Association scheme.

However, scientists insist that slugs do play an important role in the ecosystem, as natural composters, breaking down vegetation, and providing food for hedgehogs, toads and some garden birds.

Of the 30 native species in the UK, just four are classed as pests: the netted or grey field slug, the garden slug, the keeled slug and the large black slug.

“We hope that as well as helping with research into the Spanish slug, people will learn a bit about the biology of these molluscs,” said Dr Bedford.

“You never know, we may even help inspire someone to become a malacologist in the future.”

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