The worm’s for turning

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The day after ‘Warmageddon’ (Tuesday 19th July) the temperature dropped significantly so we were back out with the dogs
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I noticed lots of small pea-sized holes in the ground. Was it worms desperately trying. to escape the heat underground?

In last week’s column, I discussed what I nicknamed ‘Warmageddon’, when on Tuesday 19th July, temperatures across the UK hit unprecedented heights, peaking at over 40°C for the first time since records began. The following day the temperature plummeted by a whopping 15°C, a drop the like of which only happens in the UK.

We were once again able take dogs out for a walk, having the previous couple of days followed veterinary advice and kept them home and in the shade. It’s worth remembering that it’s not just the extreme heat affecting a dog’s body temperature that is a problem. As we happily walk along a pavement with our feet protected by shoes, we might not realise that for our dogs, it is like walking across a sizzling hot plate in bare feet.

We took one of our favourite routes across some fields nearby, and as we trotted along the dry and dusty footpath, I noticed that the ground was littered with hundreds of tiny holes, about the size of a garden pea. I wondered what could have made them. Before the crescendo of Warmageddon, we’d already had days of warm dry weather, the heat penetrating down into the soil. And then come Monday and Tuesday, it ramped up significantly. Were these holes made by subterranean-dwelling earthworms or insects desperately coming up in an effort to escape the scorching earth enveloping them? The sensible thing would of course have been to burrow deeper down, where it would be cooler, but would they have the instincts or the ability to do that?

I didn’t see any dead insect bodies lying about, so it’s possible that I am wrong, but maybe the entomologists among you can enlighten me (please get in touch via my contact page at countrymansdaughter.com, or email this paper). I’ve included a picture which might help identify which little creature it was that made the holes and why (Of course, they could have been there all the time and I simply didn’t notice them before!).

The often neglected earthworm is a small invertebrate that is such an important contributor to our eco system. It is estimated that there are between 250,000 and 1.75m worms per acre of land, and thousands of species across the world, with the UK being home to 26 of them. There are two distinct varieties, those that are surface dwelling, spending their days slithering among the undergrowth looking for rotting vegetation, and those that are burrowing, and live off decaying roots, manure and fungi found deep in the soil. The most common is the dark pink tiger worm, which lives above ground, and the grey worm, which burrows up to 30cm downwards. The common earthworm is bigger, and can delve up to 3m below the surface but, despite its name, accounts for only one in 80 of the species we most often see. The largest earthworm ever found in the UK was a whopping 40cm long.

When I was a child, we used to believe that you could chop a worm in half and it would survive. This is not strictly true. Worm bodies have a slightly chunkier section nearer the head end of their body known as the ‘saddle’, and all their important organs lie between the head and the saddle. If the worm is sliced below the saddle, then they can survive the injury, although they will remain scarred for life.

Another little known fact is that worms are able to ‘hear’, even though they don’t have ears. More accurately, it is that they can react to sound vibrations. Charles Darwin tested this by placing some worms on top of a pot of mud on a piano. As soon as he started to play, the worms disappeared into the soil. The sound made them think predators were approaching. It is the most likely explanation as to why they come to the surface during a rain storm. It is thought the rain pounding the ground makes them think a mole is approaching underground, and so they make their way to the surface to escape.

Without worms, life as we know it would come to a halt, with farms being unable to grow crops and feed livestock, and thus the food chain would crumble.

Next time I see one, I might just shake its hand.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 12th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 10th August 2022

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