The Amazing Unlovables

© Lianne de Mello

These species aren’t winning any popularity contests, but all have their place in the ecosystem – even if they are unloved by some humans.

Slugs and snails and gardeners’ wails

Slugs are loathed by green-fingered enthusiasts the world over for chewing unsightly holes in our treasured flowers and shrubs. Their appearance is uninspiring at best, and many people find them positively nauseating. Needless to say, they are largely unwelcome in the immaculate show gardens that many of us know and love. However, in the nature-centred garden (the kind we prefer here at the Wildlife Trust), slugs and snails are very important and should be tolerated. They are a vital food source for all sorts of birds, mammals and reptiles, and are a part of the natural balance. Leave them be and you may be amazed at the wildlife that follows.

Gutter birds or urban heroes?

Pigeons, or so-called ‘rats with wings’ or ‘gutter-birds’, are reviled among some city-dwellers. In reality, pigeons have benefited our species, and we have a great deal to thank them for. Charles Darwin studied them extensively to develop his theory of evolution, and in both world wars pigeons were frequently used to carry vital communications that saved thousands of lives. Of the 70 Dickins medals awarded to animals for gallantry, 32 went to pigeons.

As well as being capable of extraordinary heroism, pigeons are also highly intelligent. With the right training, they are able to distinguish music by Bach and Stravinsky and paintings by Monet and Picasso! They are also a valuable food source for foxes and birds of prey such as sparrow hawks and peregrine falcons.

Remarkable rats

Brown rats were introduced to the UK in the 1700s, and of all the millions of species that occupy the earth, they are considered among the lowest of the low. While it’s true that rats in large numbers can be problematic, they are in fact fascinating creatures, capable of a sophisticated range of emotions and thoughts.

One ethically questionable study showed that rats are even capable of empathy – when one rat was forced to tread water, its friends would try to save it, even when they could have helped themselves to a treat instead. Rats can recognise expressions on other rats’ faces and have complex systems of communication. They even laugh when amused!

While they may thrive in the messy environments that people create (they are opportunistic scavengers and will happily feast on leftovers, making them one of nature’s best recyclers), you may be surprised to hear that rats themselves are fastidious when it comes to personal hygiene. So, it would appear that we need to reconsider using ‘rat’ as an insult – we’ve actually been handing out a lot of undue compliments.