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Anthony Roach from the Earthworm Society of Britain talks about all things earthworm and what we can do to help our wriggly friends.

I vividly remember as a child picking up earthworms, marveling at woodlice and exploring the dirt! I was always fascinated by the miniscule creatures in my garden. It is therefore no surprise to me as an adult I champion earthworms and the other ‘small things that run the world’. I love invertebrates and personally feel humans take the presence of ‘bugs’ or ‘creepy crawlies’ as they burrow, crawl, buzz, fly, raft and swim very much for granted. I’ll never forget the time I showed someone a drawer full of preserved beetles. They replied by saying ‘Uggghhh…ugly!’ I concealed my disappointment of course. Admittedly, they can be a hard sell for some people – learn to love this creature covered in spines, weird hairs or what looks like slime (it isn’t most of the time!).  Invertebrates make up 97% of all life on Earth and to me insects, crustaceans and other marine creatures are just as beautiful and should command our respect. Insects alone have been around for 480 million years – whilst we arrived late on the scene around 3 million years ago.

Anthony identifying freshwater invertebrates

Remarkable invertebrates

The earthworm is a remarkable invertebrate. They have been around for at least 600 million years. A single hectare may hold as many as 8 million earthworms and worldwide there are around 5,000 described species. Earthworms alongside bacteria, fungi and insects are vital for recycling organic material (such as fallen leaves and rotting wood) to create the soils we need to grow food and provide food for all kinds of wildlife. Healthy soils are very important for supporting plants and animals on Earth as soils recycle nutrients, filter our water and allow us to grow our food. The soil also limits the effects of climate change by storing carbon in the form of tiny fragments of plants, microorganisms and animals in the soil. Without earthworms to maintain the health and structure of soils, plants and animals would be unlikely to receive the nutrients, water and food they need.

Earthworms can range in size from a few centimetres to Australia's Giant Gippsland earthworm which can reach to over a metre in length! In Britain and Ireland there are 31 different kinds of earthworms and they can be pale green, blue to deep red and stripy in colour. Some earthworms even glow in the dark (known as bioluminescence). Historically, compared with other wildlife such as birds, butterflies or mammals, earthworms have been very under-recorded.

It was because earthworms were under-recorded and I was fascinated by them that I decided to join the Earthworm Society of Britain (ESB) to inspire others to better understand them and their habitats. I learnt more about the society after volunteering to charm worms at The Natural History Museum in 2010. I was later inspired by several talks about the lives of earthworms by the spritely, enthusiastic Emma Sherlock who is chair of the society and earthworm curator at the museum.

Earthworms, like human beings have a brain, a nervous system, heart and a digestive system, as well as carrying blood around their bodies. Naturalist Charles Darwin famously studied earthworms for over 30 years and made some interesting observations about their senses. Find out more about earthworm senses and Charles Darwin’s experiments on the Earthworm Watch website.

The Earthworm Society of Britain

There has been a society devoted to bird conservation in Britain since 1889 - The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland was established even earlier, in 1836 for wild plants. It wasn't until a century later in 2009, that the Earthworm Society of Britain (ESB) was set-up by passionate individuals to raise awareness of the ecological importance and conservation of earthworms.

The ESB is a voluntary organisation that plays an important part in supporting scientific research to improve the conservation of earthworms and their habitats and educates and inspires people to take action to help earthworms. The ESB runs the National Earthworm Recording Scheme and training courses and events for those who are keen to identify and record earthworms.

Passionate people like Keiron Derek Brown, Earthworm Recording Officer for the Society ensures they have a voice in the biological recording community and wider biodiversity sector. If you would like to find out more about earthworms and how to get involved in recording earthworms near you, then visit the ESB website or perhaps attend a future ‘learn to love earthworms’ course being delivered in partnership with the Field Studies Council.

My role with the Earthworm Society of Britain is to answer enquiries from our members, individuals, researchers, wildlife organisations and many other people who are interested in earthworms. Enquiries could include requests for identification of earthworms and other similar invertebrates, confirming records that have been submitted, requests for data or requests by organisations to offer advice or talks around earthworm species, their distribution and conservation.

Earthworm Citizen Science

Since April 2016, enthusiastic gardeners, allotment owners, families, schools and others have accepted the challenge to dig and count earthworms. Earthworm Watch – a citizen science project developed by Earthwatch Institute and the Natural History Museum, in association with the Earthworm Society of Britain – has been carrying out important research to better understand the relationships between earthworms and the key benefits they provide: soil productivity, flood mitigation and carbon storage.

Why should we be concerned about invertebrates?

There is much greater awareness than ever before thanks to BBC’s Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II organisations such as WWF which demonstrate how human activity is leading to a global decline in species. However worrying research from Germany has now shown that invertebrates once common-place in the environment are declining too. It is the responsibility of all of us to help support the survival of a world rich in invertebrates, especially in our soils as our lives depend upon them. I don’t want to see tigers or leopards go extinct, but without invertebrates, as David Attenborough stated in Life in the Undergrowth ‘If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the world's ecosystems would collapse.’

5 ways you can help invertebrates

  1. Do you live in or near London? Get involved with other Citizen Science Projects for Mission Invertebrate.
  2. Sign up to Earthworm Watch and/or join the Earthworm Society of Britain to help scientists record the abundance and diversity of earthworms in different soils across the UK which are an important food source of food for Hedgehogs and other mammals.
  3. Join and/or support Buglife –the invertebrate conservation charity or if you like bees, why not the Bumblebee Conservation Trust or similar invertebrate conservation charity of your choice.
  4. If you have a garden or allotment – create a wild patch, log pile or compost for invertebrates.
  5. Garden for wildlife by planting pollinator friendly plants for insects to refuel and feed on.

Anthony Roach, Earthworm society of Britain

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