State of our Soils (and Wonderful Worms)

Sam Newton – Natural Heritage Trainee, Land of Iron

Charles Darwin was an undoubted genius, according to most people’s definition – so it should come as no surprise that he was interested in earthworms. He even wrote a book with the catchy title The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the action of worms, with observations on their habitats.

Cartoon of Charles Darwin in Punch magazine (1881) - he studied worms for many years, even playing music to them!

Earthworms are fundamental. They are ecosystem engineers – a term associated with important ecological outputs, which can often be stalked by controversy because of the affects caused e.g. Eurasian Beaver (Castor fiber). However, everyone can get behind earthworms; they are the only species playing a significant role in pedoturbation and are a major player in pedogenesis.

What are pedoturbation and pedogenesis? Well, they’re words we should all know. They describe the process of mixing between soil horizons resulting in healthy homogenization, and the formation of soils through biogeochemical processes.

Organic rich woodland soil. Copyright Alasdair Fagan, NYMNPA.

Soil is the unconsolidated material on the top level of the earth in temperate climes. In the UK most plants grow in soil. Our soils are under pressure from erosion/loss, compaction and decline in organic matter. In the 2015 bestselling book, What Nature Does for Britain by Tony Juniper, estimated the annual cost from soil degradation is between £900 million and £1.4 billion, while studies suggest soils will be too degraded for production within around 100 harvests. The need for solutions is urgent.

These aren't sandbanks - this is the sediment (soil) runoff from the Thames, as seen from the International Space Station in 2014

Soil health targets are included in the Government’s new 25 Year Environment Plan. Further national measures are planned through legislation during 2018 to manage all soils sustainably, including devising a soil health index, and updating guidance on crop establishment and optimal tillage choice.

Earthworms are crucial for tackling these problems and maintaining the health of soils. Still little is known about earthworms, despite Darwin’s efforts. We know there are 29 species in the UK, split into four groups: composters living in organic rich vegetation, epigeics living amongst leaf litter, endogeics living in the soil, and anecics living in vertical burrows. They all eat (and so recycle) decaying material, help drainage and aeration, and are food for many other species (so crucial for biodiversity). The fact that all four groups and all the species have varying ecology enhances their benefits to the reducing of erosion, compaction and the loss of organic matter, therefore benefiting the entire ecosystem – including us.

It will be very important to increase our understanding of distributions and ecology of each earthworm species, to help us to properly conserve and encourage worms to be a vital partner in such a time of soil health concern.

What is known about worms...all earthworms are hermaphrodites - mating head-to-tail by covering themselves in mucus and exchanging sperm. From Science Learning Hub.

The Earthworm Society of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has information regarding the recording of earthworms, identifying different species, and further facts on their biology and ecology.

The British Society of Soil Science is supporting the advancement of soil science in the UK. The more we understand the resource the more we can do to conserve and enhance it.

Positive messaging from the Midlands

John Beech – Land Management Adviser

I’ve recently returned from the lowlands of Leicestershire and three days training with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT). The BASIS Conservation Management course was highly informative, well led and thoroughly enjoyed by all who took part.

The Trust’s own Allerton Farm Project at Loddington  was the venue for the course – a 272 hectare mixed farm enterprise that is innovative in its approach to conservation management. One of the first things I noticed when I drove into the village was the amount of farmland birdlife, so I knew somebody was doing something right in terms of conservation land management.

The course covered all of the different elements required when managing farmland for conservation and wildlife, alongside profit. We covered a multitude of subjects including Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, Minimum Tillage systems, Biobeds for pesticide removal, increasing farm energy efficiency, recent pesticide developments, Biodiversity 2020 strategy, Farm Assurance Schemes, Cross Compliance regulations, gamekeeping for wildlife management, maintaining soil sustainability, improving water quality, tackling non-native invasive species, and managing farm woodlands. Starting off in the classroom the lessons were then observed in practice across the farm.

Gamekeeping techniques in practice at Loddington - copyright John Beech, NYMNPA

Settlement ponds seperate out soil particles and reduce run off before water returns to the ditch system at Loddington - copyright John Beech, NYMNPA

The Allerton Farm Project targets management for specific (Red and Amber Status) species such as Grey Partridge, Turtle Dove, Bullfinch, Tree Sparrow and Skylark. Cultivating a mixture of high hedges, managed grass buffer strips, plots for nesting in amongst the cereal crop as well as putting up nest boxes, has added to the aggregate of necessary habitats and increased habitat diversity on the farm.

The farm has benefited from a number of agri-environment grants over the years but is by no means reliant on these. If there is something that an agri-environment scheme promotes but doesn’t fit in with farm practices it isn’t taken up. However this is relatively rare, and the general thinking is that farms should take advantage of these schemes where possible and can do so with a little assistance.

Energy efficiency and recycling are common threads within sustainable farm management and our classroom for the three days was a good example of an energy efficient building: surrounded and insulated by straw bales, heated by a biomass boiler and lit via solar panels on the roof.

The afternoon of Day Three meant sitting a two and a half hour exam – as a middle aged man that’s something that some of us on the course hadn’t done for many a year. I’ll find out how well I’ve done when the results come through in a few weeks!

The Allerton Farm Project is a great example of how mixed farming and wildlife conservation can work in practice, and benefit species recovery and landscape enhancement.

Beetle Bank seeded with a mix of species including Teasel, Yarrow and Knapweed to benefit farmland birds at Loddington - copyright John Beech, NYMNPA

All in all, I learnt a lot and one of the positive messages I’m taking away is that on every farm there is always something that can be done to benefit wildlife without having to lose out on money in the process. I’ll carry these thoughts with me as I start back on my day job in the North York Moors, refreshed and revitalised from my three days at Loddington.

The Allerton Farm Project has its own Research Blog.