Throwback Thursday – Earthworms – the final chapter! (December 2013)

This week’s #throwbackthursday chronicles the final part of field work on the NERC BESS earthworm project in 2013 – hard to believe two years have past since we finished!

With the soil analysis laboratory in York shortly closing for Christmas the race was on to complete enough samples in each field and county for the statistician on the project to work his magic. The result was an epic 400 mile round trip to finish off sampling fields in Leicestershire, Berkshire and Dorset. It was just David and I who set off Sunday evening for Leicester, meaning that I was navigator (oh the pressure!), but on Monday we met up with Jo who is the technician at the University of York undertaking the soil analysis, to finish the final field in Loddington.

Jo and David sorting soil (is David praying for the project to end?)

It was great to meet with Jo and find out about the soil analysis side of the project, at the moment she is working on the samples taken for the measurement of microbial activity since these need to be processed quickly for accurate results, later analysis will be done on particle size, pH, nutrient content and more. The method used by the lab is the fluorescein-diacetate (FDA) hydrolysis assay, enzyme activity from microbes in the soil sample cause the colourless FDA to break down into fluorescein which is a fluorescent yellow-green. The intensity of the colour is measured using spectroscopy and comparison with a standard determines the relative microbial activity of the sample.

Not unlike the earthworms Jo has found the microbial activity to vary greatly both between and within fields, from extremely high in the field in Yorkshire with the longhorn cattle to nearly ‘dead’ in one of the fields in Berkshire. Jo informed me that clayey soils are particularly difficult to process which I could sympathise with as they are also difficult to sort!

We made good progress despite being just the three of us, squeezing in an extra 11th sample which unfortunately had to be sorted in car headlights (again) and I made the tactical error of not taking my waterproofs off so ended up being volunteered to wander around a field in the dark to put the soil back in the hole.

Such dedication!

Loddington finished, Jo returned to York with the soil samples and David and I travelled south to Berkshire, returning to the lovely Dundas Arms, sadly too late for dinner but they did make us some amazing sandwiches. In the morning we were joined by Paul and Kelly and volunteers Cecilia and Alex, as a team of six we made brilliant progress and a super 21 samples were completed.

Kelly and David take the environmental variables while Cecilia prepares to sort

The Soil Biodiversity Group gets stuck into sorting another sample

With still a few left to do in Berkshire next week the rest of the team went their separate ways while David and I travelled to Dorset. Thankfully this time we arrived in time for a pub dinner, nothing like two days of sandwiches for dinner to make me appreciate a hot meal! The next morning we met with the farmer of the final farm to find out about the management history of the fields and decide which would be suitable for the project. After picking up Paul from the train station we began sampling the penultimate field of the project.

The penultimate field, the barn at the back would prove useful later in the week!

On Thursday we were joined by fellow project veterans Sholto and Irfaan to finish off the field in the quarry (no blasting this week sadly) and the other two fields. By Friday the weather was against us, but we maximised the work achieved by sorting in the barn during the heaviest rain and by dusk the required samples had been done!

A very wet and muddy Sholto, Irfaan and Paul sorting in the rain in Dorset

All that remained was to finish the two fields in Berkshire so on Monday David, Paul and I met up again for the final day of sampling, two weeks and a day overdue! The fields were extremely wet, particularly (and not surprisingly) the one by the river, with one soil moisture reading at 100%. In the absence of a tap the stream proved useful for filling the mustard bottles, since they were to be used straight away the issue of bacterial contamination was avoided.

In the absence of a hotel or research centre to fill the mustard bottles, a stream will do

And now…

The final pit

And so finally the time had come, after 10 weeks of field work, the final pit was dug!

At last – the final pit!


And Paul had the ‘honour’ of pouring the final bottle of mustard solution

Of course the project is not over, there are still thousands of earthworms to count and identify, soil samples to analyse, numbers to crunch, meetings to attend and papers to write, but my part is done. It has been a fantastic experience for me to be part of such an ambitious project. Being involved has given me a greater understanding of what is involved in research,  including the logistical and political aspects as well as the science. I have been reminded how much I enjoy field work, even in the rain and mud but most of all I reaffirmed my aspiration to be a researcher. I miss being in a muddy field but most of all I miss the interaction with like-minded people (wow, never thought I would say that!) – from discussion on scientific topics to intense debate on the merits of different biscuits. The New Year should bring more financial stability after my student life and so I hope to be able to visit the Museum once a week and continue volunteering with the Soil Biodiversity Group.

And so I offer a big thank you to everyone I worked with on the project, you have been an inspiration.

Gosh I was very wrong about my part in the NERC BESS earthworm project being over! I actually went on to identify half the earthworm samples and there should be opportunities to use the data set in my PhD research. I have even done microbial activity analysis of my own samples using the same method – fluorescein-diacetate (FDA) hydrolysis assay, as Jo did. Reading the post back has given me fieldwork withdrawal symptoms though, next year I plan to do more.

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