Worms and their place in our soils’ delicate ecosystem

Worms and their place in our soils delicate ecosystem

It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures.

– Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms (1881)

Here’s a very interesting article by Sarah Johnson, PhD Researcher in Environmental Science, King’s College London.

Not all wildlife is created equal in our eyes. Take the earthworm, which doesn’t have the widespread appeal of larger, more charismatic animals such as gorillas, tigers or pandas. Worms are never going to get a strong “cute response”, and they won’t ever be the face of a conservation campaign.

But what Darwin rightly recognised is that – panda fans avert your eyes – worm conservation is much more important once we factor in their provision of what we now call “ecosystem services”, which are crucial to human survival. Darwin spent 39 years studying these animals for a good reason. In fact, earthworms have even been ranked the number one most influential species in the history of the planet – above dinosaurs and humans.

Why care about the worm?

Ecologists consider earthworms “keystone species” because of how much they influence the physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil. Here are just some of the reasons why:

Earthworms are recyclers. They play a crucial role in breaking down organic matter and fertilising the soil, simply through their constant eating and pooping (about 1.5 times their body weight a day). What comes out the other end – known as a worm cast – is full of nutrients and bacteria that are beneficial for plants. Scientists have measured up to five times the amount of key nutrients in worm casts compared to surrounding soil.

Worm cast has up to five times more nutrients than the surrounding soil. photographyfirm / shutterstock

A study in Hawaii found that replacing a portion of standard fertiliser with vermicompost (compost from worm casts) increased yields of crops such as tomatoes and strawberries by 30%. It’s hard to generate industrial amounts of worm cast, of course, and vermicompost remains more expensive than commercial fertiliser. But it’s an intriguing example of how earthworms can help humans.

Earthworms are great “soil engineers”. As they move through the soil, earthworms loosen and mix it up, helping to aerate and drain it. This brings nutrients to the surface, making the soil more fertile, and helps prevent flooding and erosion.

Earthworms are barometers of soil health and toxicity. They’re very sensitive to soil pollutants such as pesticide residues or unwanted heavy metals (zinc, lead and so on), and they are badly affected by changes in land use such as deforestation to clear the way for intensive farming. This means the health of local worms is proving to be a useful tool to assess the impact of different land usage and pollutants.

Juicy earthworms are an important food source. They are protein-rich and feed a number of animals, such as the European badger.

Many food chains eventually lead back to an earthworm. nate samui / shutterstock

Earthworms can help repair damaged soil and may provide solutions to man-made problems. Research suggests that earthworms could help to clean up land contaminated with toxic heavy metals such as lead.

Other studies show how earthworms can speed up the restoration of degraded land in the tropics, while research in northern Vietnam found that reduced earthworm diversity due to land use change also had a significant knock on effect on soil fertility, water drainage and soil erosion.

So, earthworms are our underground allies – if we treat them right. Earthworms make it possible for us to live on the planet, simply by eating and pooping, and ploughing up, ventilating and fertilising the soil along the way.

‘I disagree with this article.’ Harvey BarrisonCC BY-SA

Climate change and human intervention are fast-tracking the world’s loss of biodiversity. The plight of the tiger in India and the orangutan in Indonesia are well known, but scientists are also becoming concerned about earthworms and other animals that we are less familiar with, but which we can’t afford to lose.

If pandas go extinct, it will be very sad. But, a world without earthworms? Arguably without earthworms in our soils, life could vanish pretty quickly. We would have less food, more pollution, and more flooding.

No matter how cute a panda looks, it is Darwin’s “lowly” earthworms that are doing dirty, but crucial, work in the soil below.

This article was written by Sarah Johnson,PhD Researcher in Environmental Science, King’s College London for http://theconversation.com

UK gardeners urged to bring back the garden pond as the best way to help wildlife

The Wild About Gardens challenge encourages people to build their own pond

The Wildlife Trust and the Royal Horticultural Society have joined forces to urge people across the UK to bring back the garden pond as the feature that can make the biggest difference to saving wildlife.

As part of their annual Wild About Gardens campaign, it encourages people to get involved by creating a garden pond of their own. Whether it’s a large container or deep sunken pond, any water outside can drastically help reverse the decline in garden wildlife.

Ponds are a brilliant way to attract wildlife through colourful flowers, the sound of water and creating a safe space they can inhabit in peace. It’s great for animals such as hedgehogs to have a place to drink and for frogs, newts and other amphibians to feed and breed.

If you don’t have space for a whole pond, consider creating a ‘pocket pond’ instead.

“It’s such fun to help wildlife with a pocket pond – it needn’t be big,” explains Ellie Brodie, Senior Policy Manager at The Wildlife Trust. “All you need to do is fill an old sink or washing-up bowl with rainwater, plant it up and make sure that wildlife can get in and out – it’s easy! I love watching bright blue damselflies landing on the irises in my pond – they’re so beautiful and it’s great knowing I’m helping local wildlife.”

Helen Bostock, Senior Horticultural Advisor at the RHS also says: “Ponds and other water features are an attractive focal point in any garden and are a real haven for wildlife. Even cheap container ponds made from up-cycled materials will quickly be colonised by a whole host of creatures and help form a living chain of aquatic habitats across the neighbourhood.”

The UK has lost ponds, rivers, streams and wetlands at a rapid rate, with only a small amount of natural ponds remaining. With many ponds left in uninhabitable conditions, 13% of wetland species are at risk of extinction.

Continue reading at: Country Living.

It is best to keep the shape of your pond simple

Top Ten Attractions at Kew Gardens

Here’s a great video from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is in Richmond on the outskirts of London, and is one of the most amazing gardens in the world. It has an extraordinary diversity of plants, over 14,000 trees and it is all set within a vast and beautiful landscape layered with history and heritage.

There is always something new happening at Kew Gardens; new festivals, new events, new displays to see and enjoy.

Kew Gardens’ Top Attractions featured here are:

Kew’s Old Lions

These old trees include the ginko (or maiden hair) tree which is one of Kew’s oldest, dating back to 1762 when it was planted by Princess Augusta and Prince Frederick.

Kew Palace

A rich history spanning nearly 400 years, it is also here that the original botanic gardens at Kew began. http://bit.ly/1qv5FwY

The Pagoda

Built in 1762 for Princess Augusta, the Pagoda is open to the public the first time in eight years. Don’t miss out on a rare opportunity to climb to the top — until September 7th 2014. http://bit.ly/KewPagoda

The Waterlily House

Designed and built in 1852 by Richard Turner, the star in here is the Victoria cruziana, the leaves of which can grow to 1 metre across. We also have the smallest waterlily in the world which no longer exists in the wild — so we’ve saved it from extinction. http://bit.ly/waterlilyhouse

The Marianne North gallery

Showcasing more than 800 paintings of plants and flowers http://bit.ly/marriannenorthgallery

The Arboretum

A living library of trees, every tree is a page, every tree has a story – a wealth of information and knowledge.

The Princess of Wales Conservatory

With ten different climatic zones this is the most complex glasshouse at Kew. You can feel the changing environments from the desert to the rain forest. http://bit.ly/TMn9H1

The Davies Alpine House

Where spectacular alpine flowers grow http://bit.ly/1mhqoCN

The Treetop Walkway

At 18m high, you can walk 100m through the tops of the canopies, experiencing the smells and sounds, and getting a bird’s eye view right across the Gardens. http://bit.ly/treetopwalkway

The Palm House

One of the world’s most extraordinary glasshouse structures, it was built in the 1840’s and constructed in a way that meant no supporting columns were needed. It is an amazing and iconic building, both in its design and in the plants that grow inside it. http://bit.ly/KewPalmHouse