Controlling pests

John McGill writes:

There are several things that can dampen a plot holder’s enthusiasm – weather, poor soil, etc – but pests may be the most irksome. You plant a crop, let’s say of courgettes, and all appears to be fine, and you start to look forward to a nice dinner, and… then it rains, and out come the slugs and snails, and your lovely crop is decimated. It can be very disheartening.

On the Burnside allotments, and doubtless also Vinery, we are beset by slugs and snails, but also quite a few other causes for concern. Birds, deer, rabbits will all have a go at their favourite crops, and then there are beetles, mites, caterpillars, and a variety of worms. This is apart from the diseases that can strike, the most prevalent of which on Burnside are blight and white rot.

In theory, all these problems are surmountable – books and websites have endless pages on tactics and remedies, occasionally contradicting each other, and we shan’t get into all the details which are easily looked up.

Here, we will just make some recommendations.

Slugs and Snails

These are everywhere, though you will see them mostly during or after spring, summer and autumn rain. Virtuous people suggest you go out to the plot, night or day, pick the slimy creatures up and escort them off the premises. Of course, you should not throw them onto your neighbour’s plot, and there is the old tale that a thrown slug will simply return. I, when feeling virtuous, throw them over Cherry Hinton Brook, thinking that they can’t swim. However, if you’re not near the brook, that may be more difficult.

Other less squeamish people suggest going out (night or day) with a pair of scissors or a knife and dividing them into two. This can take time. Others recommend pouring salt on them, though a lingering death can haunt you. A large amount of people just stamp on them, which can be messy, or chuck them into a watery, and lidded, container. These tactics work, though you will still be plagued.

You can learn where they congregate – anywhere damp and dark and near to the tasty crop – and indeed, create shelters for them (stones, mats, bits of corrugated iron) so you’ll know where to find them. Some people try beer traps, though the beer might be better used.

Ultimately it can come down to the use of slug pellets, though this is a contentious issue for some. There is a wide range of slug pellets on the market. I, again hoping to be virtuous, have tried several non-toxic types but have found that most slugs just consider these an hors d’oeuvre.

Finally, there are the toxic blue pellets, as sold at the Burnside store. These do work, and in the morning you will see the evidence. However, caution is advised. A poisoned slug or snail will simply be a meal-in-waiting for many animals – birds and hedgehogs in particular – and they in turn will become poisoned should they eat the poisoned corpse. Hence, I go to some lengths to ensure no such animal can get to the corpse. Nets and barricades are used to prevent any entry onto the killing ground. This can be cumbersome, yet it should be effective, and you should have a harvestable crop.

Note: the use of such pellets should only be used for the younger plants; once they become robust, the need for pellets should diminish. Also note: snails climb (sometimes way up into the foliage), slugs don’t (generally). Further note: slugs and snails will, should conditions dictate, go for anything, apart (maybe) from raspberries and kale.


The main bird to give trouble is the pigeon, or dove. As you might notice, they are a constant allotment feature. They will peck at many a crop, and ravage some of them. Weather conditions and seasons seem to determine how much they peck and what, but the main targets are peas – though broccoli can also get a hammering.

The most simple protection is diversion. Stringing up bits of cloth, shiny metal or old cds will deter most birds. Plastic bottles on sticks sometimes work, though they are not foolproof. A thorough matrix of string or wire can work, though it’s time-consuming.

I find the best option, which I always use for peas, is comprehensive netting. Make a cage. Blackbirds sometimes get in to have a peck around, but they don’t usually cause any trouble. They may indeed catch the odd slug or snail. Should you find a bird flapping around inside your netting or cage I suggest leaving it alone – it found its way in and, once you’ve gone, will find its way out. If it’s tangled up… well, that’s another matter.

Deer, rabbits, mice and, sometimes at Burnside, ducks

Simply, fencing. Deer fencing should be quite high and robust, but it doesn’t need to be fine. The smaller the animal the finer the fencing should be. I’ve found that comprehensive blockading around the strawberry patch is necessary upon noticing little mouse runs, and bites.

Please avoid anything that might cause unnecessary peril to animals, and remember that the allotments are regularly visited by foxes, hedgehogs, toads and frogs, and snakes (non-venomous).

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