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  • Writer's pictureAlistair

Natural Born Decomposers ...

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

An earth worm makes a hasty retreat leaving its eggs behind

At the top of Cefn Garthenor’s land there are a good number of semi-improved fields making up around 20% of the area. These are the hardest to bring nature back to as they are largely a monoculture of grass. I’m trying a number of routes, mowing and taking hay off them to help remove nutrients (grass will always tend to win if the nutrient levels are high), allowing the hedges to move in and planting wildflower seeds (especially yellow rattle which is a grass parasite).

There are other options which include some kind of horticulture, ideally using agroforestry principles to bring in some trees and help boost biodiversity as well as producing a crop. I should underline that the main ambition is NOT to be farming, however nature friendly it could be. However, given these fields are the furthest from nature rich this managed route would be one way to improve things, plus produce some nice fruit, veg and possibly nuts. I’m due a visit from agroforestry expert, Marina O’Connell from at the end of November with a view to seeing what might work on two or three fields near the house and yard.

As part of the preparation for that visit I needed to get some soil testing done. A big part of this involved taking soil samples and sending to a lab for analysis. In each field I took around 25 samples using the auger (see picture) which takes a column of soil approximately 1cm in diameter and perhaps 15 to 20cm deep. To get a fair selection, I do this along an imaginary “W” written on the entire field. That gave me around 500g which is what was required to send off.

So far so dull. More fun is the worm count. Essentially dig a hole 30cm x 30cm x 30cm (in old money a cubic foot), put the soil on a bit of cardboard and get your hands dirty. In my fields you can hit a layer of shale (mud rock … a pretty low grade brittle stone made from compressed clay and silt) after between 15cm and 40cm. Most of the worm life is nearer the top, essentially in the grass roots which only go down 10cm to 15cm maximum. But the good news is that there is a hell of a lot of worm life. I’m told that 10 in a cubic foot is good. I found over 30 in one field’s hole and over 20 in each of the other two fields. And most excitingly (for me at least), worm eggs.

Worms are hermaphrodites, so each have male and female parts. However, they don’t self-fertilise. They hook up with another worm, producing a cocoon into which the egg cells and sperm are deposited and buried. There is a two-to-four week gestation and then the baby worms emerge. I am guessing that I disrupted the process when I started my counting …

The key beneficial activity of worms is their ability to break down organic matter and to move that matter around, aerating the soil as they go. Darwin was a big fan … his final book in 1881 was the catchily titled “The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms”. He wrote “It may be doubted if there are any other animals which have played such an important part in the history of the world as these lowly organized creatures.” They essentially form soil though their digestive actions. We need these characters.

Through the digging and searching the soil, it was also pretty clear that it was heavy, clay based stuff. It was very easy to roll a ball which kept its shape, so not much sand there. This also fits with the shale … the soil at Cefn Garthenor is largely clay with some silt and little sand. It holds water to quite an extent (it takes well over an hour for water I poured into the worm sample hole to drain). Many of the plants on the land suggest that it is likely acidic.

The report from the lab is likely incomprehensible to me. And I have no idea what fruit, nuts or vegetables may work well or what might need to be done to assist their success. Time for Marina to visit. But the worms do make sense to me.


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