Snails in the garden: way of life, predators and more


As a child, I played every day in the garden in front of my house in my home town of Rheinlandpflanz. There, my interest in nature grew, as did my aspirations to become a natural scientist. I now study horticultural phytotechnology and am currently writing my bachelor’s thesis on the topic of crop protection in orchards. Since living Berlin, I have become particularly interested in improving the quality of life in cities with the help of plants.

Favourite fruit: figs, passion fruit, berries, limes and oranges.
Favourite vegetables: potatoes, garlic, tomatoes, pickles, lamb’s lettuce and rocket.

Snails in the garden are commonly found in full plant beds where there is moisture. But how do they actually live and what do snails do in winter when temperatures drop?

Snail on a tree branch
Snails feel right at home in gardens [Photo: gadiphoto/]

Snails are abdominal animals (Gastropoda) and, within the phylum Mollusca, are the only class of animals with terrestrial species. With or without a house, they move through our gardens in search of food and hiding places – and at a speed of 2 to 7 cm per minute. If a snail were to make its way from London to Bristol at an average speed of 4.5 cm per minute, it would take about 7 years without interruption. However, since their radius of action is only a few metres around their breeding burrow, no snail is likely to ever make the trip.

Snails in the garden: occurrence and way of life

An estimated 250 to 500 different land snail species occur in Central Europe. These live among other things in forests, on ruderal areas or just in our gardens. Very attractive are moist gardens with hiding places. Widely distributed nudibranchs include the genetted slug (Deroceras reticulatum), the Spanish way slug (Arion vulgaris), or the tiger snail (Limax maximus). If we meet snails with shells, it is probably the banded snail (Cepaea), because it is the most widespread in Germany. Larger specimens, on the other hand, could be Roman snails (Helix pomatia). These are by no means all the snails that are found in our country. You can read about other species, and what makes each special, in our article on snail species.

Leopard slug moving over plants
The cannibalistic leopard slug is beneficial in the garden [Photo: Anest/]

The everyday life of a snail is largely determined by its high water content. Therefore, it is essential to protect themselves from dehydration. Therefore, snails are mostly nocturnal, they hide during the day in dark, damp and preferably also warm places. If it becomes too warm and dry for the snails, they go into summer dormancy. Starting with dusk, they become active and search the garden for tasty plants. More details about nutrition of snails can be found in our separate article.

Garden snail on plant stem
White garden snails (Cepaea) are serious garden pests [Photo: verunkazd/]

Half of all known snail species are hermaphrodites. Within the land snails (Stylommatophora), all are hermaphroditic, both with and without shells. This means that they form male and female sex organs – sometimes with a time lag (proterandry). From June, 4 to 6 weeks after successful reproduction, snails lay their eggs, for example, in cracks in the soil, in holes in the ground, under planter boxes, densely overgrown plants or stones. After 2 to 3 weeks, the young snails hatch from them. Most snails develop only one new generation per year.

Tip: Snails hibernate in holes in the ground, shell snails also seal the opening of their house with lime.

The average lifespan of a snail is 9 to 12 months, but theoretically they could live for several years. Early death is usually due to the large number of predators. A Roman snail in a terrarium reached a proud age of no less than 30 years.

Two Spanish slugs mating
Two Spanish slugs (Arion vulgaris) mating [Photo: MVIDEOMEDIA/]

Are there poisonous snails in the garden?

No, in the UK there have been no poisonous species found. The only species dangerous to humans, the cone snail (Conidae), lives in the tropical sea.

Where do snails live in the garden?

Pretty much any place that offers a shady, moist and preferably warm hiding place is welcome to the mollusks. Snails in the garden hide during the day in holes or burrows in the ground, under flower pots, in stone cracks or between path slabs, in compost, piles of leaves or in wood piles. Then in the evening they crawl into the beds in search of food.

Tip: In the morning you can collect snails from their damp hiding places. Boards can be placed in the bed as such hiding places. This way you know exactly where the snails are when you collect them.

A snail in the shade
Snails hide in shady, damp places during the day [Photo: Edvinas Zvicevicius/]

When and how do snails get into the garden?

Snails have a radius of action of a few metres. Therefore, it is likely that the snails in your garden there already hatched. In spring, between February and March, the young snails hatch from their eggs. Damp, unmowed verges are sources of slugs in the garden. Possibly, however, one or the other snail flew over to you in a high arc from the neighbor’s garden. We therefore appeal to everyone to expose unwanted snails far enough from garden plants.

Tip: A British research team found that when snails are moved at least 20 metres away from where they were found, their instincts are so disturbed that they cannot find their way back. The most effective way is to relocate them outdoors to meadows or the edge of the forest.

Why do I have so many snails in the garden?

If you have a lot of snails in the garden, it is probably because they find perfect conditions for reproduction and hibernation in your home: Safe hiding places and plenty of food. Food plays a special role, because not all plants are consumed equally. We have summarised the most slug-resistant plants in this article. In addition, beer traps are still touted as a remedy for slugs. In the process, their intense smell leads to motivate many more snails to unusual efforts and attract them to the garden. In the absence of predators such as birds or hedgehogs, there are equally larger populations of snails in the garden. Therefore, it is best to provide good shelter for these animals.

A hedgehog eating a snail
Hedgehogs and other garden animals can decimate a slug infestation [Photo: Rob kemp/]

How to get rid of slugs in the garden?
About housing snails you can enjoy. These prefer to consume withered leaves and dead plant parts and are therefore considered beneficial insects. On the other hand, if you want to get rid of slugs and prevent them, you can find suitable information in our article on how to get rid of slugs. One way to permanently eliminate slugs is to use slug pellets.

How do snails spend the winter?

For slugs it looks bad already from autumn. Many, but not all of them die at the beginning of the cold season. Before this happens, they lay many eggs in protected places in the ground. Some species of nudibranchs, but also slugs, hibernate. To survive the cold winter, the metabolism must be reduced. This is accomplished by the snails lowering their body temperature, which causes the organs to work more slowly. If they were not asleep, snails would therefore probably experience winter in slow motion.

Hibernation, of course, they can not hold in the middle of the bed. Starting around mid-October, snails instead hole up in burrows or holes in the ground, piles of leaves, or stacked wood. They also survive the time thanks to a previously eaten layer of fat. Housing snails also close the entrance of their house with a lime lid.
From the end of April, when the temperatures start to rise, the snails wake up again, become lively, crawl out of their hiding places and quickly go in search of food.

Snail shells with hibernation lids
Snails close their shells with a lime lid during the winter [Photo: Victoria Tucholka/]

What predators have snails in the garden?

Snails are a feast for many animals. Birds, hedgehogs, mice and ducks, for example, are happy to have a slimy meal. Those who create suitable living conditions for these creatures have helping hands, or rather helping snouts and beaks, in combating slugs in particular.

A thrush eating a snail
Thrushes also eat snails [Photo: Martin Hibberd/]

Cannibalism is also common among snails. The Roman snail (Helix pomatia) eats the egg clutch of nudibranchs, as does the tiger snail (Limax maximus), which even eats young, live nudibranchs.

Leopard slug eating slug eggs
A great grey slug (right) eats the egg clutch of other slugs [Photo: Tomas Vynikal/]

Tip: Did you know that Indian runner ducks are arch enemies of slugs?

If you want to rely on the support of birds against slugs, you should make your garden bird-friendly. We show you how. To learn how to help other garden animals through the winter, see our dedicated article.

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