"Earthworms are amazing creatures - we've been using them to break down our waste for 4,000 years, but it wasn't until the last century that Charles Darwin recognised their value scientifically. He calculated that a worm eats its own body weight each day, and noticed that in doing so it helps drain and neutralise the soil."
Heather Gorringe breeds millions of such worms on her Herefordshire farm, and runs a thriving business based around their subterranean life-cycle. Not surprisingly, she is a huge fan of the invertebrates, but this hasn't always been the case: "I've always been a bit of a tomboy, and liked getting my hands dirty, but I'd never really thought much about worms until we had a problem with sheep manure on my father's smallholding," she says.
It was while she was contemplating this problem that she stumbled across an obscure book on worm composting in the local library. This prompted her to begin some clumsy experiments using stock bought from a local angling shop, only to be amazed by the results. Within months her charges had converted a huge pile of manure into top-quality soil conditioner: "It would have taken two years to rot down conventionally," she says. "But the worms managed it in three months."
Here was something that was interesting, fun and a talking-point in the local pub. "I was looking for something rewarding to do," Heather continues, "and this seemed to be it."
So began Wiggly Wigglers, the company Heather founded to market worm- based composting. At first she worked mainly with farmers and local authorities, but as the business grew she branched into the domestic market, selling worm-filled bins suitable for modern kitchens. The business took off and, following her marriage in 1992, Heather moved with her beloved worms into her husband's farm at Blakemore, near Hay-on-Wye.
One of the core attractions of worms, of course, is that they are small. Huge numbers can be housed in a confined space: perfect for a crowded world. As a result Wiggly Wigglers is also suitably compact - although the company has a turnover of pounds 150,000. Apart from a small office on the first floor of the main farmhouse, it occupies just a small stable block and half of a small, concreted yard where the breeding stock of three indigenous species do their stuff in a 20-yard-long pyramid of cow dung. "We want the business to grow, but whatever happens, we want to stay based here," says Heather.
So far at least, growth has been rapid - increasing by around 50 per cent each year, and Wiggly Wigglers now has three full- and two part-timers, all of whom are women. When quizzed about this imbalance of the sexes, Heather simply giggles. "I've no idea why we're all women - it's simply the way things have gone."
In general the bulk of the company's business comes from composting. Domestic kits form the most important elements of this, ranging from a pounds 8.45 bag of 350 worms to kick-start a compost heap, to pounds 74.90 for a kitchen- based "Can O Worms". The last is an ingenious stack of sieves through which the worms climb, while their casts drop to the bottom. When the lowest layer is full, it is removed, emptied and returned to the top.
A third of all composting business comes from local authorities. Some councils want to give subsidised bins to ratepayers (although Heather is averse to giving them away free: "Unless people pay for something they don't appreciate it, and the worms can suffer," she says). Others want worms to boost reed beds planted below landfill sites to break down leaching effluent, while an important minority need help dealing with dog excrement - although trials so far have been inconclusive: "Worms appear to break this down very well, but so far we can't absolutely guarantee they will neutralise the bacteria and parasites which make dog excrement such a problem," explains Heather.
"One of the main driving forces behind all this is a desire to do something positive for the environment," she adds.
Her colleagues are equally enthusiastic. "Do you realise that the average household creates between 200 and 250kg of waste a year that a worm would regard as edible?" says Louise Hayes, Wiggly Wigglers marketing manager. "In Australia, six per cent of homes have a Can O Worms. If we followed, can you imagine what impact it would have on the amount of rubbish we tip into the ground each year?" Better still, the final result of the worms' munching is a valuable product in its own right, prized by serious gardeners as the best compost available. The going rate is pounds 1 a litre for the crumbly black soil, compared with 10p for conventional, peat-based alternatives.
At the other end of the scale, Heather feels worms could play an important part to play in land reclamation. Worms secrete calcium as they eat, neutralising acid soil and increasing the soil's humus content. This reduces water flow through the soil and helps to stabilise pollution from slag heaps and disused industrial sites - particularly when used in conjunction with trees.
According to Louise Hayes, it is the educational aspect of worm-farming that the staff find most rewarding - and customer satisfaction: "The wonderful thing about a worm kit is that it is working all the time," she enthuses. "There is always something to look at - a bit of liquid, some compost and lots of slithering. It makes worms an ideal classroom educational tool."
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