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Volunteers photographing earthworms for the Earthworm Image Recognition Project.

Getting a wiggle on in Swaledale

Tuesday 24 October, 2023, by joeveritt

Earlier this month, the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, through the Tees-Swale: Naturally Connected programme teamed up with the Biological Recording Company for three days of earthworm sampling and identification.

This work will contribute to the development of the Earthworm Image Recognition Project and will also help to address the under-recording of earthworms across the UK.

Armed with a spade, gloves, and copious amounts of ethanol, our volunteers set out to survey different habitats on Woodhouse Farm in Marrick, with the hope of finding a range of earthworm species.

Small soil pits were dug for the volunteers to sift through, while only those with a brave disposition and a strong stomach checked microhabitats like cow pats and the muck heap.

The juvenile worms were returned to the soil because they lack the physical features needed for identification, whereas the adult worms were preserved using ethanol.

The next day, our earthworm sampling team reconvened at Foxglove Covert in Catterick Garrison. There, we sampled a range of habitats including cut and uncut meadow land, Willow Carr, and specialised habitats like the inside of rotting logs and the underside of stones.

Photograph of an Earthworm for the Earthworm Image Recognition Project
Photograph of an Earthworm for the Earthworm Image Recognition Project

On both days the worms were photographed in white plastic tubs to provide data for the Earthworm Image Recognition Project.

At present, earthworm ID is only possible on dead specimens with the use of a microscope. This means earthworm recording is inaccessible to most people. The photos we took will be used to train Artificial Intelligence to identify earthworms.

If successful, this will be developed into an app for farmers to identify live worms simply by taking photographs, bringing earthworm ID to the masses, and helping farmers to gain a greater understanding of the health of their soil.

We spent the final day using microscopes to identify the specimens by counting the individual segments on the first third of each earthworm’s body. The segments on which certain features fall can be used to determine the species.

This can be an intricate and painstaking process, which further emphasises the need for an identification app, and illustrates the importance of the work done through the Tees-Swale programme. 

The Tees-Swale: Naturally Connected programme is a joint venture between the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Partnership and the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, funded largely by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Joe Everitt, Tees-Swale Farming and Nature Trainee

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