Earthworms are keystone animals among the soil fauna – they help to build and renew the soil environment that other soil life needs.
This activity will provide useful data to help link different types of earthworms to soil health, and help show us what we can do to help keep our soil and our earthworms happy.
Not all earthworms are the same! We have 28 different species of earthworm in the UK, and different worms do different jobs. Telling species apart is very difficult with live specimens, but luckily earthworms come naturally colour-coded into 4 easy groups that reflect their jobs.
In this activity we’ll discover which types of earthworms are found in soil that is treated in different ways and generate some data to explore how earthworms relate to soil health.
You will need:
• At least 2 places where you don’t mind digging out a spadeful of soil
• 1 standard width spade (about 17 cm / 7” wide)
• A large tray or sheet of polythene to sort the soil on – a large rubble sack is good
• A kneeler (soft pad)
• Gloves (unless you’re happy getting your hands dirty!)
• A survey form for each spadeful – print out a paper version from here (
) or use this online form
• A pen or pencil for paper forms.
• A little water to moisten the soil.
• A place to wash your hands.
Health and Safety!
• Let others know where you are and what you’re doing.
• Make sure that where you’re digging is safe (beware traffic, steep slopes, falling branches, machinery, animals, dung, broken glass, thorns, poisonous fungi, stinging insects, etc.)
• Keep your back straight when digging, and get help if you need it.
• Use a kneeler, or find somewhere else comfortable to work – take a break if you get tired.
• Cover any cuts on your hands and use gloves if needed.
• Keep dirty hands away from your face, and wash them as soon as possible after the activity.
What to do:
• Select your two locations where it is safe (see above!) and where you have permission to dig the soil.
o These should be different from each other in terms of how often the soil is disturbed, the amount of surface vegetation or leaf litter, or whether compost or manure has been added to the soil recently.
o These can be farm fields, vegetable beds, gardens, lawns (if you don’t mind making a hole!) or anywhere where there’s soil.
• At each location, select a spot randomly, and put down your plastic tray/sheet nearby.
• Note the soil and surface characteristics and, if known, management history of the spot of soil you’ve chosen on the form overleaf.
• Cut out a square of soil approximately 15 cm (6") deep (one spade cut on each side) and lever out the soil block, as intact as possible and place on the tray / sheet.
• Check the base and sides of the hole for any earthworms, and collect them if present.
• Put the kneeler down nest to the sheet and get comfortable.
• Rest the block of soil on its side and pull it apart so it folds open like a book.
• Look at the soil structure inside the soil block and match it to a description on the form
• Make a bit of the soil wet, squeeze it between your fingers and use the form to note how it feels.
• Carefully sort through the block of soil, including amongst any litter and surface vegetation (there may be lots among the roots!), and match each earthworm you find to one of the 4 types using the guide provided.
• Keep a tally of how many earthworms you find of each of the 4 kinds on the form.
• Release the earthworms as you count them and put the soil back in the hole when you’ve finished.
• Wash your hands thoroughly.
• Submit your results (even if you found no earthworms!) using this online form or e-mail a photo or scan of your survey form to
The data will be combined nationally to explore the relationship between surface features, land management, soil condition and texture and the abundance of the different types of earthworms. Results will be shared through the Soil Biodiversity UK Facebook group here
Your name (leave blank if you like!)
Location of soil sample (lat/long, grid reference, postcode)
Surface features (please tick all that apply)
Leaf litter (including crop residues)
Dead Wood (including wood or bark chips)
Dense plants (no soil visible)
Sparse plants (eg. bare soil between crops or plants)
Inert covering (eg. stones, slabs, gravel, geotextile etc.)
Recent Management (during last 3 years) - tick all that apply.
Dug or ploughed
Slurry or digestate added
Soil feels... (tick all that apply)
Opened out block of soil... (tick one only)
...is mostly made of small (<1 cm) rounded crumbs with lots of air spaces between
...has some small crumbs near the surface but is mostly made of bigger blocks
...is all made of bigger blocks
...is like one solid block
...fell apart, but had no rounded crumbs.
Deep Burrowers: Number of earthworms with dark reddish brown heads and pale pink tails. Usually larger worms.
Soil Dwellers: Number of earthworms that are all pale, with bands of pink, greyish, whitish, bluish or greenish colours, sometimes with yellow bands/tails. Small or large worms.
Surface Dwellers: Number of earthworms that are solidly deep reddish or brownish from head to tail (ignore the "saddle" colour - these may have pale undersides!). Small worms.
Compost Worms: Number of earthworms that are striped down whole body with regular reddish bands and paler space between, visible especially when moving (usually in compost heaps). Medium or small worms.
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