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A charm of earthworms

Song thrush with earthworm. Photo Amy LewisSong thrush with earthworm. Photo Amy Lewis

By Dyane Silvester

June saw the UK national worm charming championship in Cheshire.

The idea is to ‘charm’ as many worms as you can out of a 3m x 3m patch of ground in 30 minutes without using water. This might seem a crazy idea but you have to admit that it raises the profile of this much ignored yet incredibly important creature. 

If you're a gardener with a healthy compost heap you will be familiar with earthworms since they feed on decomposing vegetation and soil or, to be more accurate, organic matter within the soil. Their first segment contains a mouth which works by sucking earth or other matter in (they have no teeth) and their system digests the nutrients as this matter passes through.

The process aerates the soil, so by creating their burrows they provide a service vital to the health of soil. They also move nutrients from deeper down towards the surface which is beneficial to plant roots, so both in the garden and in the wild a worm-rich soil will support healthier plants.

There are so many myths about earthworms. If you cut one in half you will not have two viable worms – in fact you will only still have one if the head end also contains the saddle plus at least 10 segments behind it. The saddle (smooth section about 1/3 of the way from the head of the worm) contains glands which secrete mucous to protect the embryos after mating. Although worms are hermaphrodite, most species (and there are between 25 and 30 species native to the UK) do not self-fertilize.

Worms move by way of tiny hairs on each segment of their bodies; as they contract and relax the segments these hairs pull them along. They also coat themselves with a lubricating mucous, which helps movement and moisture retention, although they stay largely underground during the day to reduce fluid loss.

If they are unable to reach shelter on a warm day they will dehydrate and die. Did you know that they breathe through their skin too and although they don't have eyes they have light-sensitive and touch-sensitive organs, and taste receptors. This means they can sense the difference between night and day and even the approach of a predator.

Of course their other important ecological role is as food for larger animals. Since they are relatively defenceless they are preyed on by many bird species, including birds of prey, badgers, hedgehogs, moles, frogs and many others.

So next time it's raining and the steady patter of raindrops is bringing worms to the surface, give a thought to the importance of these rather amazing little creatures – and to their vulnerability in the face of all those bigger species looking for an easy meal.

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