Exploring the wonderful world of worms

Compost worm

Compost worm - Credit: Alan Wright

Where would we be without worms? The Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s Ellen Sherlock digs in her garden to find out

Worms are essential for your garden by Ellen Sherlock

Worms are essential for your garden by Ellen Sherlock - Credit: Ellen Sherlock

Worms make the earth turn round – literally, they turn soil over as they move, helping to improve its structure and drainage. ‘So what?’ I hear you ask. Well, if you like gardening or eating food then you have worms to thank, and if you still think worms are boring – keep reading.

Specifically, we’re talking about earthworms. In the UK alone there are 29 different species of earthworm and each one plays an integral role in our ecosystem, but don’t be fooled by worm wannabees; like the slow worm (actually a type of lizard) or glow worms (a type of beetle).

Earthworms come in a variety of sizes and colours, deep red, green, some are even a bit stripy. The largest species of earthworm in the UK can reach up to 30cm in length and takes the prize for spookiest species name – the nightcrawler.

Our earthworms are world-class recyclers, eating organic matter, like dead leaves and plants and turning it into super nutrient-rich worm poo. This increases soil fertility which in turn helps soil microorganisms and fungi to thrive.

Black-headed worm by Alan Wright

Black-headed worm by Alan Wright - Credit: Alan Wright

Earthworms aren’t as smooth as they seem; their bodies are covered in minute hairs which help them grip the soil as they move through it. Instead of using eyes to see, earthworms navigate their surroundings by sensing vibrations in the soil. They don’t have lungs either, breathing through their skin instead. Those are some pretty clever adaptations for living a life underground.

Earthworms aren’t just vital for helping provide us with our food, they are also integral to the ecosystem as a whole and much of our beloved wildlife relies on them directly for a tasty source of protein. Badgers, foxes, robins, hedgehogs, frogs, moles and blackbirds are all kept well fed, thanks to earthworms.

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Delve around in the soil with your spade for a couple of minutes and you might attract a robin or blackbird looking for an easy feed as you uncover lots of tasty worms.

Earthworms usually live in the top few centimetres of soil, but will burrow deeper to find essential moisture if the earth dries out or freezes. Just like human engineers, worms change the structure of their environment too, by making burrows. These burrows create pores which allow oxygen and water to enter and carbon dioxide to leave the soil.

UCLan worm expert Dr Kevin Butt

UCLan worm expert Dr Kevin Butt - Credit: Alan Wright

Earthworms will come to the surface to mate. They are hermaphroditic (having both male and female reproductive organs) but do not self-fertilise and need to seek out a partner in order to do so. Following mating, each worm will form a tiny, lemon-shaped cocoon to deposit the sperm and egg cells into before it is buried. Two to four weeks later, the baby worms emerge and the cycle continues. Generally, earthworms will live for between four and eight years.

If you aren’t a fan now, go along to a worm charming event and join in the fun as people tap and stamp the soil to persuade worms to come to the surface. They are attracted to the tapping because they think it’s the pitter-patter of raindrops on the soil.

Worm charmers mark out squares and try to get as many worms as possible in a set time. It really is good fun but also educational as you can look at the many varieties of worm you can find. If you are worm charming in your back garden, be patient and make sure you return your “catch” safely and unharmed into the soil.

Welcome worms

There are lots of things you can do to give worms a warm welcome in your garden. Here are three easy ways to encourage them.

Feed your soil every now and again with peat-free compost.

Reduce the amount of hard surfacing, like paving stones, to give worms somewhere to live.

Avoid nasty chemicals like pesticides and insecticides at all costs.

For more tips on how you can give worms, and lots of other wildlife, a helping hand download a free copy of the My Wild Garden booklet, from lancswt.org.uk/mywildcity.

My Wild City is a partnership project between The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside and Manchester City Council, funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

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