Earthworms aren’t everybody’s favourite creatures, but they deserve more of our affection. Vermicomposting expert Sara Moledor, who works on our earthworm farming project in Palestine, explains more...
Earthworms are disgusting.
That’s one of the first things people say to me when they find out I work with them.
When it comes to dishing out love to a species the polar bear and the panda will always win far more votes than the earthworm. But although they’re not most people’s idea of cute and cuddly, the earthworm is the most important species on the planet when it comes to the survival of humanity.
In his book, What on Earth Evolved?: 100 Species that Changed the World, Christopher Lloyd describes earthworms as the most influential species of all time. Lloyd writes, ‘Were it not for earthworms’ continuous regeneration of soils around damp river valleys such as the Nile, Indus, and Euphrates, early agricultural societies in Egypt, India, and Mesopotamia could never have succeeded in building humanity’s first large-scale urban communities‘.
He also says that Charles Darwin considered them unrivalled for the profound impact they’ve had on history. Earthworms occupied a special place in Darwin’s heart. Although best known for his work on natural selection, he also wrote a book about earthworms, and it’s still in print today.
Having described the plough as one of mankind’s most ancient and valuable tools, Darwin added that earthworms ploughed the soil long before the plough was invented, writing it may be doubted whether there are any other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as these lowly and organised creatures.
Serious stuff: quite simply earthworms give life to soil we need to be able to grow our food and to allow trees to grow, which provide much needed life and shade. When they burrow through the earth, they aerate the soil and improve water drainage. No earthworms, no life.
Earthworms have voracious appetites, eating as much as their full weight every day in decaying organic matter. This is handy because what comes out the other end is pure goodness for soil. Better still, they poop out one and a half times their weight per day, so they’re productive too. Darwin estimated all soil has passed through an earthworm at some time and will pass through an earthworm many times again in the future.
Earthworm manure, or casts as it is sometimes known, is composed of microorganisms, inorganic minerals, enzymes, and organic matter – it’s basically the best thing that ever happened to your garden. So while earthworms are not cute and fluffy they are ingenious.
With intensive farming and chemical use reducing the quality of soils in an ever growing number of countries, the earthworm has never been so important. They toil through the soil and organic matter creating natural fertiliser, bringing nutrients to the surface, making the soil more fertile as well as helping to prevent flooding and erosion.
Studies have found the positive effects worm farming can have on soil. Compost from worm manure (known as vermicompost) increased crop yield of tomatoes and strawberries by 30% when compared with standard chemical fertiliser. So next time you see an earthworm stranded on a pavement why not pick it up and return it to the nearest area of grass or ground. It has to work to do, to keep our soil alive.