nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I think I'll go eat worms

As a soulful four-year-old, I spent a lot of time stomping behind the plough collecting the, “big fat squidgy ones” left wriggling on the inverted furrows. I probably should have been at playgroup developing social skills, but when my mum did send me I stole the tricycle and was found trying to ride home.

Worms might have been an eccentric interest for a pre-schooler, but I was in good company; Darwin studied earthworms for 40 years and sold more books on them in his lifetime than he did on natural selection. He reckoned just about all fertile soil had at some point passed through the gut of an earthworm. Interest has waned a little since 1881 but we are hoping to change that from this summer. Earthworms are vital to soil aeration, drainage and nutrient recycling and are also a very good visible indicator of the health of the wider soil community, including microscopic fungi and bacteria. Why should you care? Without healthy, active soils we would have little food and very little wildlife. What is good for earthworms is good for us and the planet.

Earthworms like moist, well-drained soils with plenty of organic matter. They hate synthetic fertilisers, most pesticides, excessive cultivation, compaction and extremes of temperature. Not surprisingly, you don’t find many in intensively farmed arable fields. Organic farming is better but we still need to develop methods less reliant on the plough to avoid disturbing our humble friends.

Despite their importance, very little is known about the UK earthworm population. To remedy this we’ve created an adult and kid-friendly survey with the help of Emma Sherlock, our semi-tame and highly enthusiastic boffin from the Natural History Museum. Yes, we want you digging and identifying. Visit www.riverford.co.uk/bigwormdig to get your booklet, and perhaps win a family holiday. I don’t recommend eating any worms you might find however.

Guy Watson