Shropshire Earthworm Blitz 2015

Earthworms in hand.  Photo: M Noble

Last weekend Tom.bio held the inaugural Shropshire Earthworm Blitz. This was designed as a follow-up to March’s Earthworm Society of Britain’s (ESB) field meeting, which we hosted here at Preston Montford.

Team Earthworm!  Photo: C BellThe aims of the weekend were three-fold: Firstly, to generate as many new earthworm records for Shropshire as possible; secondly, to reinforce earthworm identification skills for people who attended the March meeting; and thirdly, to encourage some new earthworm recorders for the county. Although not an official ESB event, we were very pleased to welcome back Keiron Brown, ESB Recording Officer, who came to lend us his enthisiasm and expertise.

Saturday saw us pile into the minibus to visit four field sites, covering a range of different habitats. First stop was Colemere, one of Shropshire’s meres surrounded by woodland and owned by Shropshire County Council. The site has a number of designations, including Local Nature Reserve, SSSI and Ramsar site. We sampled two sites here, one in marginal grassland by the lake edge, and another in mature woodland. We followed the ESB’s sampling protocol of five soil pits, a spade’s breadth, width and depth. The Tom.bio team at work!  Photo: M NobleWe also did a few ad hoc turnover searches, looking under logs and stones. The number of earthworms we found was disappointing, especially in the woodland – but the very dry soil conditions might have had something to do with that. We did find a hornets’ nest, which, after some cautious examination, we decided was best left to the hornets!

Next stop, fuelled by jelly sweets (thanks Martin!), was Melverley Meadows, a lovely unimproved meadow site owned by Shropshire Wildlife Trust. Again, we sampled two sites here – one at the bottom of a seasonal pond (dry at the time!), and one in the meadow itself. Both sites here yielded quite a few worms.

Earthworm sampling at Melverley Meadows.  Photo: C BellBy this time our stomachs were rumbling (depite the jelly sweets!) so we headed to our third site, which handily doubled as our lunch stop – Fordhall Organic farm. We enjoyed a delicious lunch at the café there. But earthworm recorders never rest, and whilst waiting for our food to arrive a quick turnover of some plant pots and slates in the courtyard garden yielded more worms than any of the ‘official’ soil pits! I was really surprised by this, having not expected to find worms on a hard, paved substrate – but Keiron explained that the regular watering of the pot plants would create the perfect damp, dark earthworm habitat underneath them. After lunch we headed out to some grazing pasture on the farm, where we experienced the delights of searching through cowpats. Although worms were surprisingly non-existent in the dung, we did see a huge variety of dung beetles! After a quick rummage around the compost bins in the garden area, it was time to head to our final site.

The last stop of the day was another Shropshire Wildlife Trust reserve – Quarry Wood. This site, secondary woodland on an in-filled quarry, didn’t seem to have many worms in the soil pits we dug; however, we did find several worms under the bark of fallen dead wood, which we suspected might be different species to the ones we’d already collected.

Sunday was ID day – a lab-based day identifying the worms collected the previous day, plus any extra specimens participants had brought along. For those of you unfamiliar with earthworm identification, there are a few key things to look at. Firstly the characteristics of the head, which splits earthworms into two groups: epilobic and tanylobic. After that, it’s a question of counting the worm’s segments and deciding on which segment certain features fall – including the male pore and clitellum, reproductive features found on adult worms. Examination of whether the setae – fine hairs along the length of the worm – are closely or widely paired also helps narrow down the ID.  Some worms are tricker than others, and it all requires a degree of concentration and ability to manipulate both the worm and the microscope.  Luckily we had tea and biscuits to provide some much needed brain fuel!

Earthworm viewed down microscope, with labels.  Photo: C Bell

Blitz earthworm records.  Photo: C BellThe results: we identified 13 different species of earthworm and created over 30 new Shropshire earthworm records. Of these species, several are classed as rare worms – but our experience suggests that this is simply because they are so under-recorded. The habitat we found the worms in was also occasionally at odds with some of the information in the key, and we found one species which is supposedly confined to southern England. This is not meant to imply any criticism of the excellent AIDGAP earthworm key, but just shows how little we know about this group of hugely important soil invertebrates. Every record is therefore really important, and contributes significantly to the body of earthworm knowledge.

Participants on the course were a mixture of those who attended the March ESB meeting, and those completely new to earthworm recording.  I'm sure Rich would agree that our partnership with the ESB, and the insight into the world of earthworms and earthworm recording it has given us, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the Tom.bio project.  We hope to continue to run earthworm training events over the next couple of years - keep an eye on our training page, or sign up to our newsletter for updates.

Further information

For more information on Tom.bio's earthworm work, visit our Earthworm project page. For more information on invertebrate training courses run by FSC, see our upcoming FSC invertebrate courses. FSC also publishes a couple of ID resources for earthworms: the Linnean Society earthworms synopsis and the AIDGAP earthworms key.