July 24, 2024

It may be known as snail mail, but researchers hope the public will use the postal service to send them a different kind of mollusk: snails.

A team of scientists and farmers researching slug-resistant wheat say they need about 1,000 of the creatures to study how tasty slugs find various crops.

“The ones we’re specifically looking for are gray field snails: those are the agricultural pests,” says Tom Allen-Stevens, the founder of the British On-Farm Innovation Network who is leading the work.

The study asks people to send in snails by signing up for a “slug scout” suit, which includes containers and postage-paid envelopes. The package also includes guides on how to create an attractive habitat for catching snails and how to identify species.

The latter, it seems, is crucial. “There’s a snail called the leopard snail,” Allen-Stevens said. “And if you find it, for heaven’s sake, don’t send it in, because they eat other snails.”

The researchers are looking for farmers to become “snail detectives”, which involves hosting trials such as using traps to monitor snail activity. The research is part of a three-year, £2.6m project known as Slimers which started in 2023 and is funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

It aims to find new ways to tackle what it calls “seed farming’s biggest pest problem”. Slimers say snails are responsible for £43.5 million worth of crop damage to wheat and oilseeds in the UK each year.

The chemical metalaldehyde, commonly used in snail control products in the UK, was banned in 2022, leading to the increased use of ferric phosphate granules. However, the industry is eager for alternatives.

“Where we can, we want to apply pesticides more precisely and everyone in the industry realizes that this is the right direction to go in,” said Allen-Stevens. “And farmers don’t want to spread snail pellets where it’s not needed.”

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Smarters are looking at new ways to control the molluscs, including by identifying and predicting snail hotspots so that available treatments can be applied in a more focused way.

The team is also looking at the potential for slug-resistant crops. It is conducting trials with a landrace wheat known as Watkins 788 that appears to reject slugs and 84 crosses of this crop with modern wheat.

While Allen-Stevens said the postal sets had been approved by Royal Mail, he cautioned against posting molluscs late in the week. “That’s just in case they’re sitting in a mailroom this weekend,” he said. “That’s the most important thing… Don’t post it before a weekend or a holiday.”

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