Open Eye: Worming their way into the morning papers

Malcolm Lane takes a look inside the working world of worms
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The Independent Online
THERE'S a lady who lives in Kalamazoo in the US who calls herself WormWoman and has an outfit to match. She has been known to dress up in an orange Parka and a green hard-hat with WormWoman emblazoned on it, to promote her books on vermiculture (the posh name for worms). Her latest, Worms Eat My Garbage, was described as `the definitive book on small-scale vermicomposting for adults', and sold more than 100,000 copies.

Mary Applehof is also a contributor to the Worm Digest, the trade paper of the worm industry world-wide. She was one of 200 delegates at the 6th International Earthworm Ecology Symposium, held recently in Vigo.

According to Open University researcher Jim Frederickson, who also attended the symposium, worms are big business and have been ever since Darwin "proved that they weren't pests and made them respectable by proving how useful they are". Darwin calculated that a community of worms could add half an inch of topsoil to a field in around a year and the idea of the simple worm being able to recycle stuff is very green indeed.

The Worm Digest and its Worm Website are evidence of how big worm-composting is. Jim has been researching the world of worms, and composting generally, for 15 years. He is research director of the Composting Association, formed in response to government calls to find alternatives to dumping waste into large holes in the countryside.

"Landfilling is expensive and with the new landfill tax set to rise from April to pounds 10 per tonne, that's a powerful incentive to compost rather than landfill," he says.

But while Darwin gave worms a good name, they are unlikely to be viable in recyling large quantities of society's organic waste because there are not enough of them. And the worm method of composting is slow compared with the eight-week turnaround Jim is achieving with Shanks & McEwan, a large landfill company, for which Jim is a consultant.

Working out of a site in Milton Keynes, Jim has developed a system that converts green waste into marketable compost at a rate of 100 tonnes per day through a careful mix of shredding, aerating, moisturising and sieving.

"The government target is to compost a million tonnes a year by the year 2000. At present we are doing 200,000 - 300,000 tonnes a year in the UK so we have a long way to go."

Composting is not new - and while there are only about 50 large-scale sites in the whole of the UK, they will become commonplace because, says Jim, "there is a great shortage of compost in the UK and a great shortage of topsoil and organic material for land restoration projects."

While worms are good at what they do best - recycling soil and vegetation -they can handle other materials too.

Jim has been working with a papermill in Kent which produces and recycles newsprint, including some of the paper used for The Independent.

Jim compared the composting process in use by Shanks & McEwan with the worm method, to see which would be better for this kind of waste.

"What we found is that the composted material at the end of the process is a very different product from the worm composted materials. None was necessarily any better than the other, they were just a very different material."

Although a fan of the worm : "they don't bite, they don't sting, they don't really carry any diseases, they just do valuable work" Jim is realistic about what they can and cannot do.

"The problem is that people imbue them with almost magical abilities and they imbue worm compost with magical qualities. They think they can put a worm in a pot and it will do all the work, when in fact what they usually do is die."

But worm research will continue, says Jim "because there is something about the simple biological solutions that often work better than the engineering approaches.

"The idea of using worms for land restoration or to improve agricultural output, or using them to produce compost is all part of the same game - sustainability."

Worms are big in France, with many of their research institutions looking into how they can enhance agricultural output.

And there is a growing export market for European worms, including to New Zealand. "They didn't have a particular type of worm down there, and whenever they introduced one they found it was tremendously beneficial to their agriculture, because it did a particular job in the soil," says Jim.

"You get a mat of dead grass forming under the grass and, just as you scarify your lawn at the end of the season, what the New Zealanders found was that when they introduced this particular European species it actually ate the root matter without their having to do anything.

"The root mat had been building up for hundreds of years and as soon as they introduced the European worm they got a huge increase in productivity; the increase in grass growth was remarkable, so they are very keen on the idea of using different worms to do different jobs."

There is a downside to the whole business however. Worms are very sensitive. "So before a new pesticide is introduced into the UK it has to be tested on different species of worms, because they are sensitive to pollution. So they suffer a lot - but they survive," says Jim.

Six things you probably never knew about worms and were wriggling to ask

Charles Darwin was the first to realise that worms were not pests; up until his day people thought they were and gardeners used to go out of their way to kill them.

There are basically two types of earthworm, one that lives in the soil and one that lives in organic matter on the surface of the soil.

France has more than 100 species of worms and there are some 3,500 species worldwide. In this country there are just 28 species; they never made it across the Channel.

Worms are hermaphrodite but need another worm to mate. The soil worm can stay in the mating position for a number of hours. Both produce offspring. The compost worms can produce offspring every week. Most worms will only produce one offspring but some worms will produce five or six every week.

Worms can live up to ten years, although some die very quickly, depending on the conditions.

There is a species of earthworm that grows to six feet in length. And the New Zealand Flatworm, which isn't really an earthworm, preys on earthworms by injecting them with a narcotic which dissolves them from inside. The Flatworm is seen extensively in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but not very often in England or Wales.