CASE STUDY: Worm Surveys with Woodhouse Grove School

Green Community Hub: Workington Green Community Hub
Louise Ross, Project Facilitator, Northern Network, Groundwork Yorkshire

Using Tesco funding that the school received to pay for Groundwork staff time, we have been working with Woodhouse Grove School, continuing from riverside activities of previous years, and have moved on from willow plant and flood alleviation towards supporting the wildlife that might use these banks. We built a hedgehog house in previous sessions and our final session with Green Grove, the after-school environmental group of students, was to complete a soil and earthworm survey using The OPAL (open air laboratories) citizen science Soil and Earthworm Survey kit.

We started by finding an area that was clear of brambles, at a safe distance from the water’s edge but not on the manicured field nearby (as we were interested in the worms in the area that we’d been working on), and then dug a square hole using a trowel. We noted down the weather, which threatened to rain but hadn’t done all day and it was late Spring, so it had kept dry. We kept the soil from the hole and searched the pit for worms, then also searched the extracted soil. We then added mustard mixed with water to check if any more worms would come to the surface and to time how long the water took to drain away, giving us clues to the type of soil it was and how well it drains if there’s a heavy downpour.

We learned that earthworms prefer Silty soils with high water holding capacity and organic matter provide ideal habitat for earthworms compared to sandy soils, which have lower organic matter content and water holding capacity, and dry and reach uncomfortable temperatures quickly.

With the chart provided, we checked species and tallied up our worms to add to a table. Next was testing the pH level. Ours was pH5 which was slightly on the acidic side. Most soils in the UK range from 4.5-8 pH. The ideal is pH7 which is neutral but depends on what plants are being added. We discussed what could be done to the soil if we wanted to add certain species and what happens to the flowers of hydrangeas if you add acidic coffee granules to the soil.

“For true blue flowers, the hydrangeas need to be grown in acidic soil with a pH of 5.5 or lower. For pink flowers, the plants need neutral to alkaline soils (pH 6.5 and higher). For purple blooms (or a mix of blue and pink flowers on the same plant), the pH of the soil must be between pH 5.5 and 6.5.”

We also discussed that if certain plants are flourishing it may indicate the acidity of the soil, for example, rhododendrons, camellias, heathers, pieris, magnolias, and Scot’s pine conifers thrive in acidic/low pH soil, but honeysuckle, lilac, clematis, and lavender suggest the soil is more likely to be alkaline.

The soil type was then tested using the chart. First, we picked a willing volunteer to handle the mud. He decided to keep his gloves on and added water to the cookie-sized ball of soil. Next, he rolled it together and we noted that it stayed together but when we came to rolling it into a sausage shape it crumbled which meant it was quite sandy and loamy. This was what we expected before we did the survey as this bank is near the river which has lots of sandy deposits made. We also knew from walking the adjoining paths in winter that it sometimes felt clay-like. We smelt the soil and it smelt fresh which we were relieved at. We listened for a fizzing sound when we poured the vinegar over it but couldn’t hear any which indicated a lack of a mineral salt called calcium carbonate CaCO3, the chief component of limestone used to neutralise soil and provide calcium for plant nutrition [source:]. 

Once we’d completed all elements of our survey, we replaced the soil into the hole to make it look like we’d not been there and uploaded our findings onto the OPAL website to be collated with the rest of the UK’s findings.

We learned the pH level and type of soil as well as checked the health of the soil by monitoring how many worms were living below our feet. This means that future plants and trees can be more tailored to the site, improving survival ratings as well as being part of the bigger national story of the quality and types of soil and numbers of species calling the soil their home. 

This case study was written by Louise Ross, a project facilitator for Groundwork Yorkshire. You can find out more about her work in Bradford below.

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