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Listening to nature’s symphony: Harnessing earthworms’ songs for healthy soil

Researchers suggest that earthworms, known for their noisy behaviour, could hold the key to maintaining soil health.

Earthworms, soil health, soilpoint, soil, earth, worms,

In a groundbreaking study conducted by scientists at the University of Warwick, the incredible potential of earthworms’ acoustic activity in assessing soil health has been unveiled.

Following the award of a Farm Innovation Programme DEFRA grant earlier in the year, Baker Consultants’ Soil Acoustic Monitoring research team has started collecting data from a broad range of farms and habitats to analyse alongside the crop centre trials at the University of Warwick. Some of the first to sign up include farms from the Yeo Valley and First Milk Partnerships, sites belonging to the National Trust and land partners of the Environment Bank.

Baker Consultants’ research team will collect thousands of samples over the next six months in order to help develop its ecoacoustic database. This will allow the team to finalise a long-term sampling strategy, as well as being used to train algorithms to explore the relationship between soil sound and soil health. As part of this data collection drive, Baker Consultants has signed up a large number of agricultural and estate partners so that samples can be taken from a wide range of farms, management regimes and soil types.

Carlos Abrahams, Director of Bioacoustics at Baker Consultants said: “We have three dedicated members of the team collecting samples in line with our research protocol. Our existing ecology team also fits in sampling alongside existing site visits when geography and time allows. From woodland, heathland and moorland, to arable, pasture and mixed farmland, we need the widest range of samples possible to be able to test our hypothesis that a ‘healthy soil is a noisy soil’.

Earthworms are vital part of the soil fauna that provide a key ecological role in maintaining soil nutrient cycling, aeration and drainage. Many land mangers monitor worm populations closely, usually by digging soil pits and counting the worms at each location. While this provides very valuable data on soil health, monitoring worm populations in this way is time consuming and expensive. Early work with the University of Warwick has revealed that worms have a very specific acoustic signatures and the level and diversity of the sounds that worms generate can used a measure of the populations present. Ecoacoustics has the potential to be a completely new way of monitoring earthworms without the need for digging soil pits.

Andrew Baker, Baker Consultants’ founder and managing director said, “This is a highly significant project and our aim is to develop the world’s first ecoacoustic soil assessment and monitoring service backed up by robust science. We are grateful to all those who have signed up to the project allowing us access to their landholdings.”

In addition to exploring its use for monitoring Biodiversity Net Gain with the Environment Bank at one of their test sites in N. Yorkshire, the team have also been invited to use some of its other land holdings to collect sample soil sounds.

“At Environment Bank we are in quite a unique position where we have almost thirty new long-term nature restoration projects in the form of our national habitat bank network. We are required to monitor change in habitat condition using the Defra biodiversity metric but we also want to compare other indicators alongside that, one of which is soil health. Innovative monitoring techniques such as those being tested by Baker Consultants are going to be essential in building up well-rounded indicators of project progress and success.” Rob Wreglesworth, Associate Ecologist, Environment Bank

Access has also been granted to a number of National Trust properties in the North West including Lyme Park and Nostell Priory. “A key component of the National Trust’s objectives is to serve as custodians of the landscape in our care and the environment. Being part of this trial will help provide data on the quality of soils on these estates as a benchmark for future work we undertake.” Jess Yorke Land, Outdoors and Nature Project Manager, National Trust West Yorkshire @NT_TheNorth

Yeo Valley Organic is one of the first businesses to be involved in this trial. “Decades of industrial farming have taken their toll on our planet and serious questions are being raised about the future of our food production. For us the solution is in the soil. All life on earth starts with soil and at Yeo Valley Organic everything we do starts with the soil too.”

“Quantitative assessment of biodiversity gains as an output of agroecological farming can be a significant challenge without specialised knowledge or training. At Yeo Valley we believe that eco acoustics (both above and below ground) could be an effective low-cost solution for time poor farmers and land managers to measure the biodiversity benefits of their nature friendly farming systems.” Gerard Hayes, Group Technical Director Yeo Valley Farms.

Mark Brooking from First Milk the British farmer-owned dairy co-operative was very excited to get involved in the project. He said: “I’ve been interested in using acoustics technology to monitor the bird life on my farm for a while now, and when I heard that I could use similar tech to discover life underground and the health of our soils, we had to be involved. All of our farmers record what they’re doing for biodiversity via our portal and this will give us a new data stream to be able to monitor more accurately what effect our regenerative practices are having on soil health.”


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