Organic grower Riverford promotes public science project to map worm population of Britain

A citizen science project to map the worm population of Britain has launched.

Guy Watson. Picture: Riverford
Guy Watson. Picture: Riverford

The three-month project, led by worm experts from the University of Central Lancashire, Dr Kevin Butt and Dr Chris Lowe, is being supported by organic grower and vegetable box seller Riverford, which is promoting it through its network of box buyers.

It is also holding a Big Worm Dig Week between 26 May and 1 June – school half term – and promoting a number of public events.

The project asks professionals and members of the public alike to dig a 15cm deep 30cm by 30cm hole, examine the soil removed for number and types of worms and upload the results to the Big Worm Dig website.

Speaking at the launch yesterday at the Duke of Cambridge organic pub in north London, reader in ecology Butt, who has researched earthworms for 25 years, said earthworms were vital for soil health but little was known about their habits.

"In Britain we have about 30 species and 3,000 across the world with more to be discovered but little is known about British worms. We’re hoping this study will provide some answers.

"Earthworms provide lots of services in terms of soil production and there are a couple of good research papers which show what happens when there are none in the soil, it becomes less and less productive unless there are lots of interventions."

He said worms preferred undisturbed soil and soil where plants such as clovers and legumes provide more nitrates. Butt, who described earthworms as "microbiological reactors" added that the more worms in soil, the less fertiliser it needs.

He said he hoped the project and the research it will produce will help people appreciate worms more and, particularly, educate children as to their importance.

"The bigger picture is that we need lots of food in the future for lots of people. If the population of this planet grows and too much space is given over to food and fuel production we’ll have a disaster in the natural world."

Owner of Riverford Guy Watson said, as an organic grower he appreciated worms and they could tell growers a lot about the health of the soil.

"If you find big, fat, wriggly earthworms you can be fairly sure you can grow something good there."

He added: "When you’re growing vegetables organically you have to really start questioning what makes a soil healthy in a way which will support a crop. Many farmers have no idea what goes on in the soil. People spend millions on farms without ever putting a spade in."

The survey results will be evaluated in August with final results due in September after scientific analysis.

In March the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report said that market leaders Riverford and Abel & Cole both saw a sales rise of nearly 18 per cent in 2013 compared with 2012.

Last year Riverford came top in a study by The Telegraph newspaper which compared organic vegetable box schemes with non-organic supermarket produce.

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