Scientists to discuss the value of earthworms as farming’s soil engineers

Earthworms. Photo: Simon Finlay

Earthworms. Photo: Simon Finlay - Credit: Archant © 2005

The industrious efforts of earthworms – and their value as indicators of soil health – will be discussed by scientific experts at a farming event in Norfolk later this month.

Jackie Stroud of Rothamsted Research.

Jackie Stroud of Rothamsted Research. - Credit: Rothamsted Research

The Agri-Tech East event on May 16 at Morley Farms, near Wymondham will feature speakers including Jackie Stroud, a soil scientist at Rothamsted Research, who said it was complex subject.

'There are ten common species of earthworm and they can be divided into three ecological groups, each with a different role: epigeic live on the surface and break down organic matter; anecic or burrowing worms make permanent vertical burrows and create piles of casts or middens that can be teeming with microorganisms; and lastly endogeic worms mix organic and mineral components together in the topsoil,' she said.

'In all my years digging soil pits I always find the endogeic worms, even in heavily worked soil, so I am very cautious about using 'earthworm numbers' as an indicator of soil health without identifying the species.'

Amanda Bennett, a resource management scientist for the AHDB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board), will outline long-term research work to help farmers understand what makes a healthy soil – including land management to encourage earthworms, which have been associated with more resilient soils.

'Taking resilience to mean the ability of the soil to recover more quickly from an extreme event such as heavy rainfall, then good soil structure is a key part of this,' she said.

'Earthworm burrows provide drainage channels and pathways for roots to follow, which may result in roots being able to access nutrients deeper in the soil profile. In addition, less soil disturbance allows fungal mycelial networks to establish more fully, which can release nutrients and make them more accessible for uptake by plants.'

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The meeting will also discuss the effects of 'min-till' and other cultivation regimes on earthworm populations.

Other speakers at the event include Felicity Crotty, principal soil scientist at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and Nick Voulvoulis, director of the OPAL Soil Centre at Imperial College London

• For more information on 'Waiting for Worms', a Water and Soil Health Special Interest Group event at Morley Farms on May 16, see the Agri_tech East website.