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Worm survey unearths absence of deep burrowers

PUBLISHED: 16:09 21 February 2019 | UPDATED: 16:41 21 February 2019

#60minworms project was the first comprehensive worm survey and was carried out by farmers  Picture: JACKIE STROUD

#60minworms project was the first comprehensive worm survey and was carried out by farmers Picture: JACKIE STROUD

Dr Jackie Stroud/NERC

Key earthworm types are rare or absent from two out of five fields, a study of England’s farmland has shown.

#60minworms project was the first comprehensive worm survey and was carried out by farmers  Picture: JACKIE STROUD#60minworms project was the first comprehensive worm survey and was carried out by farmers Picture: JACKIE STROUD

The results of the ‘citizen science’ #60minworms project, the first comprehensive worm survey concentrating solely on farmland and carried out by farmers, indicate widespread, historical over-cultivation, and may explain observed declines in other wildlife, says the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

A total of 57% of farmers who took part said they would now change their soil management practices as a result.

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Biologists categorise earthworms by ecological role - with surface dwelling and deep burrowing worms the types most sensitive to farming practices, while topsoil worms are generally unaffected by over-cultivation.

The scientist behind the survey, Dr Jackie Stroud, a NERC Soil Security Fellow at Rothamsted Research, said: “Earthworms are sensitive and responsive to soil management which makes them an ideal soil health indicator. The aim of this research was to find a baseline of farmland earthworm populations that would be useful and used by farmers to assess soil health now and in the future.”

#60minworms project was the first comprehensive worm survey and was carried out by farmers  Picture: JACKIE STROUD#60minworms project was the first comprehensive worm survey and was carried out by farmers Picture: JACKIE STROUD

Earthworms perform a number of useful ‘ecosystem services’, and high numbers of earthworms have been linked to enhanced plant productivity.

The project revealed most fields have good earthworm biodiversity – meaning an abundance of all three types of earthworms were seen.

In spring 2018, the average field had nine earthworms in every spadeful of soil, with top fields having three times that number. One in 10 fields had high earthworm numbers of more than 16 worms per spadeful.

However, the study also revealed that 42% of fields had poor earthworm biodiversity – meaning either very few or none of the surface dwelling and deep burrowing worms were seen.

Dr Jackie Stroud,  a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Soil Security Fellow at Rothamsted Research  Picture: JACKIE STROUDDr Jackie Stroud, a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Soil Security Fellow at Rothamsted Research Picture: JACKIE STROUD

The absence of deep burrowing worms on 16% of fields is concerning, said Dr Stroud, because they are ‘drainage worms’ with vertical burrows that aid water infiltration and ultimately helps combat waterlogging.

“The deep burrowing worms have slow reproduction rates so recovery in their populations could take a decade under changed management practices. In fact, we know very little about earthworm recovery rates.”

More than 1300 hectares were surveyed from all over England for the project, including fields managed under arable, potatoes, horticulture and pasture.

Each farmer volunteered to dig 10 regularly spaced pits across their field to make the observations, and an identification guide allowed them to allocate any sightings to one of the three main types of earthworm.

The success of this pilot project has already led to a much larger study, which recently concluded, said Dr Stroud.

“Working with farmers led to the redesign of the pilot survey, culminating in a shorter, more efficient field assessment and a co-created earthworm identification guide, to help improve farmer confidence in earthworm monitoring.

“These improvements were well received, with farmers all over the country spending an hour of their time digging five soil pits and assessing their earthworm populations in the autumn.”

Empowering farmers to survey their own soils would save about £14m in soil health monitoring if rolled out nationally, she added.

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