Big thank you from

Not so nocturnal snail puts in appearance

by Paul Cormacain

WE visited friends last week and spent some time in their garden. Living in their garden were warblers and tits, thrushes and different types of crow, and the usual selection of robins, wrens, finches and dunnock.

Other creatures in this interesting garden were grasshoppers and snails.

The former was represented by the common green variety, the latter by the Helix aspersa, the garden snail.

Snails are supposed to be nocturnal, but it is so easy to see them by day. Which is bad if you are a snail, and a bird comes by who has a preference for snails. They certainly are more active by night, but they do not hide as much as the experts say. They are supposed to be resting up in dark damp cracks and crevices, to avoid predators, and to avoid the heat of the sun.

The great protection of the Helix is the shell. It keeps the heat out in summer, and prevents drying out.

An auxiliary protection is the skin of hardened mucus which can form and seal off the shell. Shells need lime, so snails are usually only to be found where they can acquire lime, which means alkaline soil.

The Helix is at times reckoned as a garden pest. I have always found myself being tolerant of them, but if they do get into the greenhouse I usually evict them to a stoney part of the garden. Apart from the friend's garden, and our garden, they are also to be found in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium. Having snails and grasshoppers in your garden is the sign of a bad gardener. Or is it the sign of a good gardener? You decide!

The common field grasshopper began chirping in June or July. Initially the male was chirping to attract females, and he achieved his 'song' by rubbing a row of tiny pegs on one of hind legs against his stout veins on his fore-wing. Now that is some way to 'sing'.

When some lovely lassie came along, he changed his tune. Thereafter he sang another song until the female succumbed to his charms. The young of this union are eggs, laid in a foam-like secretion that protects them from predators, disease and damp throughout the winter.

Come next spring the eggs' hatch into nymphs, or larvae, who look like small adults but have no functional wings. After about three months, and four skin changes, the larvae become adults without any more intermediary stages.

Grasshoppers hatch in May, or thereabouts and usually live for about five months, eating grass, just like a cow.

In another few weeks, as the weather gets colder, the creatures will all die out as adults until next year, then the new young put in an appearance, and the cycle starts off all over again.

Moving on from the grasshoppers we saw a small, moth and decided to have a good look at him. It turned out to be one of our more common varieties, a garden carpet, and I wonder where did he get his name. No can find out.

It occurs in gardens, paths and lesser roads throughout Britain and Ireland, and tends to have a wide variety in plumage, well, colouring.

The young, in caterpillar form, are unpopular with gardeners as they will eat cabbage. That is quite a few lepidoptera who like cabbage, not to mention us humans.

The young also feed on wallflowers and currant bushes. We have no wallflowers, and the black currant bushes have long since been raided and the fruit converted into jam. So we fear not the garden carpet. In a short week or two this creature will be a memory, and we will soon forget about them until next year's brood puts in an appearance.

Coming Events

Monday 23 September - Lisburn RSPB, with Clive Mellon talking about Farmland Birds Past and
Present, details 4062 6125

Thursday 26 September - Birdwatch morning at Castle Espie at 10.30, more details from 91874146.

Friday 27 September - Wildlife Pub Quiz, 8pm, find out more from Espie 9187 4146

Saturday 28 September - National Trust Fungi Foray at Rowallane, 2pm. Why not phone 9751 0131. Birds of the Estuary Walk at Murlough nature reserve, 1.30, details 9751 0721

Sunday 29 September - Another National Trust Fungal Foray, this time at Castle Ward 3pm. Hear more from 9751 0721.
Woodland Walk at the Argory with the warden, 2pm, please call 97510 721.
Autumn Ramble around Crom Estate, 2pm, details 9751 0721

Thursday 10 October - Update on Irish brent Goose programme, tracking the birds, arrival at Strangford, by Dr James Robinson, at Castle Espie, 7.30, phone 91874146.

Ulster Star