Darwin's Worms - Unsung heroes?

Darwin's Worms - Unsung heroes?

Have you ever felt unappreciated at work? Do you toil away all day long with nobody seeming to notice?

Then spare a thought for our humble earthworms; they spend their whole lives making sure our gardens grow, they recycle our waste and produce millions of tonnes of fresh, nutritious soil each year. Yet no one really stops to notice them, or, even worse, they are objects of squeamishness, fear and children's innocent ridicule.

Charles Darwin, however, spoke up for earthworms. "I doubt," he said, "whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures."

One day, in 1837, after returning from his 5-year voyage on The Beagle, Darwin was walking in the countryside and stopped to watch a worm, very slowly, pull a leaf into its burrow.
He was instantly fascinated by the creature and went on to dedicate 40 years of his life to the playful exploration of a worm's world.

Darwin and his children carried out many experiments, including watching worms pull paper shapes into burrows; he even played the bassoon to worms, curious to find out if they could hear! As a result of his fascination, Darwin became the first scientist to discover how earthworms improved soil, taking it in, digesting organic material and ejecting soil as manure, or worm casts. He also estimated that an acre of garden soil could contain fifty thousand earthworms, and produce eighteen tons of rich, organic castings each year. This figure is considered an underestimate today!

Darwin and Shrewsbury
This year is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth in Shrewsbury. The town will be proud host to many events, large and small, all celebrating the local childhood of Darwin and the great contribution he later made to our modern understanding of the world.

Darwin's Worms
In amongst the pomp and ceremony, will be a small but ambitious project, of which, we believe Darwin himself would have been proud.

Supported by the Darwin Community Arts Fund, "Darwin's Worms" aims to engender the same fascination for worms in a new generation of people growing up in the county. Thirty nursery schools in Shrewsbury have each received a free wormery, complete with up to 1000 worms. A further 35 nursery schools across Shropshire will join associated projects during 2009, donating a total of 65 wormeries and 65000 worms.

Helping young people to look after these worms are the Shropshire and Telford Master Composters, a dedicated group of volunteers. They are visiting each school offering advice, activities and resources to get the children composting their food waste in a sustainable way.
The worms are also being celebrated by pupils through song, dance, stories and art work, which will be displayed at Shropshire Wildlife Trust in Shrewsbury, and other venues throughout Shropshire and Telford.

Why get young people composting?
Many young people have a simple fascination with worms that is almost inbuilt. Many of the children involved in the project have enjoyed holding a wriggling worm and have watched them closely as they eat apple peel, banana skins, in fact, any uncooked leftovers from snack breaks and lunches.

A wormery can also be seen as a model of an environmentally-friendly community; all the inhabitants work together to consume resources and recycle unused waste.
A wormery, therefore, becomes a tangible starting point for even very young people to begin thinking about an important task ahead of us: how do we become more aware of our waste and live a gentler, sustainable life? By composting with worms,  simple lessons are being learnt by school communities about a very positive message: 

Caring for our environment means caring for the future.

Composting food waste is one of many ways that schools are becoming actively involved in caring for their environment and future. More than 75 schools are now part of Shropshire County Council's Waste Education Support Programme (WESP), Eco Schools are celebrating pupils' hard work by awarding Green Flags, and hundreds of gardening clubs and green groups are really making a difference to school communities.
The future is looking brighter, as schools begin to lead the way as models of balance and environmental awareness.

How are nursery schools getting on with "Darwin's Worms"?
Since October 2008, children from Condover Pre-school have coloured in worm pictures and cut them out for a display, while children at the Fun Factory are encouraging their parents to get involved and are sending scraps in from home for their new pets!

A small group of children from Jay's Nursery have been inspired to make their own mini-wormery from a bottle, so they can see for themselves how worms move through soil.
Many nurseries have started a "Worm Diary", and are measuring the food given to the wormery each day.

The project has really captured the imagination of local children, who have worked closely with the Master Composters to look after these hard working creatures. In spring, all the care and hard work will be rewarded with plenty of rich nutritious worm compost, which will be used in the nursery garden to grow fruit and vegetables, starting the whole nutrient cycle again.

The future for Darwin's Worms?
It is hoped that nursery schools will grow to incorporate worm composting or "vermicomposting" as an easy, integral part of the school day. Worms need a lot of care, just like pets. They need healthy food, clean surroundings and the right environment to keep active throughout their lives.

The Master Composters and Shropshire Wildlife Trust will continue to support the "Darwin's Worms" project beyond 2009, linking it with school gardens, healthy eating and connecting communities with their local landscapes. If worms can quietly work away at making a difference, so can we all.

If you would like to know more about the project, or support the work of Shropshire Wildlife Trust in any way, please contact us on 01743 284280, or email helent@shropshirewildlifetrust.org.uk.
To find out more about Shropshire's Master Composters, please visit shropshirecomposters.co.uk/darwins-worms-project.php

Date Posted: 5th January 2009

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