The Ecologist February 1972: The value of the ‘underrated’ earthworm

40 years ago, Cleeland Bean wrote about the value of the earthworm, their integral link in the balance of nature and the dangers faced by chemical farming

The earthworm is never likely to be a political hot-topic or the face of an environmental campaign, but their value to our soil ecosystem is indispensable. Half of all birds and some quadrupeds are almost entirely supported by worms. The average earthworm’s lifespan is 15 years, in which time it can produce up to 40,000 offspring.
The earthworm provides and important function as a soil tiller. Earthworm castings are five times richer in nitrogen, seven times richer in phosphate and contain 11 extra additions of potash compared to uneaten soil. ‘Nature’s ploughman’ provides nourishing plant food for crop and fruit yields. Studies have shown the orange groves liberally supplied with earthworms gave ‘bigger and better fruit’ compared to groves where worms were less plentiful.
Writing in the Ecologist in Feb 1972, Cleeland Bean declared the earthworm ‘underrated,’ discussing their integral role in ecology as soil tillers and their critical role in the food chain.
The father of Evolution, Charles Darwin was fascinated by earthworms, in 1881 he noted it may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world [as the earthworm]. He calculated that on one acre of land, in one year, earthworms will plough through at least 10 tons of soil.
The Ancient Egyptians valued the earthworm; Cleopatra established laws protecting the earthworm for its useful toil of the Nile Valley. Bean wrote ‘enlightened farmers and gardeners will agree, Cleopatra had the right idea.’
The Ecologist highlighted the numerous threats they face, Bean noted the dangers of chemical fertiliser and insecticides. Chemicals threaten the earthworm populations, which would upset the delicate balance of nature and available arable land for farmers. In 1972, earthworms were considered ‘pests’ to gardeners and farmers and products such as chlordane and carbaryl were common for controlling populations. Today, no such pesticides exist for the removal of earthworms since the ban of DDT.
Interest in the earthworm remains niche, however continues to worm their way into the public consciousness. Seven species of earthworm are listed by the World Conservation Union, including the Giant earthworm which can grow up to 1 meter in length. The International Society for Cow Protection runs a campaign ‘sponsor an earthworm’ recognising the balance between worms, arable land and cows. Various authorities are harnessing the power of the earthworm by promoting wormeries for homes as a clean and cheap solution of kitchen and food waste.
Forty years later, earthworms still enjoy popularity. At the 2011 conference, the Soil Association stress the importance of the earthworm as the root of all biodiversity. The earthworm also remains important for gardeners and farmers alike, as a completely natural way to boost plant and crop fertilisation.


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