Here at Coombe Farm, you won’t be surprised to hear that animals are important to us. They graze and fertilize the fields and provide us with milk and meat –they’re what pretty much all of our work is about. You might, however, be surprised to hear that one of the creatures that’s most important to us isn’t a sheep, a cow or a pig. It’s rarely seen, lives underground and without it farming would be nigh on impossible. Of course, it’s the earthworm.
In the UK there are two dozen or so species of earthworms and they break down into four broad categories: composters, surface dwellers, shallow burrowers and deep diggers. The worms you find in your compost bin or living in leaf litter take care of breaking down organic waste of all sorts, helping it decompose so it can be absorbed into the soil, feeding plants and smaller organisms. The burrowers and diggers drag waste underground and create tunnels that introduce oxygen, moisture and nutrition to the soil at all levels. This activity improves drainage, makes soil crumbly enough for roots to penetrate, ensures soil layers are well mixed and provides nutrition for all sorts of tiny beneficial fungi and insects.
While we’re busy working above ground, earthworms have got our back by taking care of the soil underground. But that’s not the end of their usefulness. Their poo, known as ‘castings’, makes a lovely, fertile top dressing for the land and they also provide a plentiful source of nutrition for birds, small mammals and amphibians. So they really are all-round good guys, without whom farmland can rapidly become hard-packed, waterlogged and infertile.
Unfortunately, the lives of earthworms aren’t without challenge. Soil disturbance during ploughing isn’t ideal for the shallow burrowers and the application of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides challenges active populations. In our organic system here at Coombe Farm we need all the help we can get from nature’s helpers, so we don’t use chemicals, preferring to fertilize our fields with muck and slurry from our cattle sheds. This is the sort of material that earthworms love, and we’re pleased to have them working in partnership with us, drawing goodness down into the soil and keeping it healthy. That way the grass that grows up top stays lush and nutritious for the farm’s bigger animals.