Calling all farmers: join the first national survey of earthworms on farmland and discover how they support environmental stewardship and improve crop productivity sustainably.

  • 07
  • SEP
  • 2018

An ambitious six-week programme to map the earthworm population of the UK begins next week, building on the success of a pilot study early this year when around 100 farmers volunteered 60 minutes to survey their fields; this time, many more are being asked to give up 30 minutes.

The inaugural national farmland #30minworms survey runs from 15 September to 31 October. It aims to help farmers to record their earthworm populations and to assess the effects of soil management, such as tillage and cover cropping, on soil health. Survey booklets can be downloaded here.

“If you think of soil health, the best place to start is with the ecosystem engineers – earthworms,” says Jackie Stroud, NERC Soil Security Fellow at Rothamsted Research who devised and leads the programme. The work is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) with facilities provided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Stroud notes the different values of the three main types of worms: “Not only do earthworms support crop productivity, but surface living worms are good prey sources for declining bird species; topsoil worms help aggregate soils, reducing their erodibility; and drainage worms, the deep-burrowing species, support water infiltration and deep crop rooting.”

Topsoil worms Credit: @wormscienceFarmers would be recording adults (with a reproductive ring, or saddle), such as the topsoil earthworm to the right

Traditionally, farmland earthworm assessments have required up to 4 days of fieldwork per farm, followed by expert taxonomic analysis in a laboratory.

“Working with farmers, we have redesigned farmland earthworm surveys – culminating in a 30-minute test that generates robust and reliable data about the earthworm community structure,” says Stroud. “This information can be used to gauge soil health – what is working well, and where improvements could be made.”

This latest survey builds on the pilot study in March and April. Results from that pilot study are currently in press, with publication imminent; initial findings are available here, on bioRxiv, the open access, preprint repository for the biological sciences, hosted by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York.

“I was thrilled with the pilot Spring earthworm survey,” says Stroud. “More than 1300 hectares of farmland soils were surveyed by farmers and their families all over the UK, including fields managed under arable, potatoes, horticulture and pasture.”

She adds: “This revealed that 58% of fields had basic earthworm biodiversity and around 15% had exceptional earthworm populations – and we could detect the effect of different tillage practices and cover cropping. Importantly, farmers feedback directly led to the #30minworms method and database so that, as a community, we can generate a first-class resource to realise soil health in practice.”

The survey booklet, available here, describes what is involved. Each test starts with the digging of five soil pits (20 centimetres x 20cm x 20cm) across a field (in the shape of a W), then the earthworms are categorised and counted, and their data recorded for despatch to Stroud.

“Don’t worry if you don’t know your surface dwellers from your deep burrowers,” Stroud says. “Half the people who took part in the pilot survey were unconfident in their earthworm ID skills…until they tried the online earthworm ID quiz, which comes with the booklet, before they headed for the fields.”

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
More information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes

About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.