Diary of the country: Worms lose their grasp in a deadly war tug


Bishop Auckland, Durham County: In this unfair battle in the mud, earthworms have no protection against marauding birds.

Mud: boot-sucking, liquid soil, the seldom listed winter threat in hiking guides.

And it looks like any hiker who has crossed this fence is greeted by horses, surrounding them with a morass of hoof holes overflowing with water.

Now it’s too late for me to turn around, so I keep walking, staying near the hedge.

And as I unload my muddy boots on tufts of grass, a thrush of song hops through a field of water, just a few feet ahead of me.

As if listening, it pauses, tilts its head to the side, then strikes, snatching an earthworm from its burrow.

In rapid succession, it catches four more, all pushed to the surface by days of rain.

This is a far cry from the tug-of-war on summer lawns between worm and thrush. The bird generally wins this match, but often its prey survives and takes the opportunity to retreat into its tunnel if it lasts longer and the thrush loosens its hold for a moment.

On either flank, each part of the body of an earthworm bears a pair of chaetae, tiny retractable bristles that stick to the sides of the burrow. Without a magnifying glass, they are too small to see, but if you put an earthworm on a sheet of hard, smooth paper, you can hear them scraping across the surface as it wriggles and battles for a grip.

It anchors its tail with its chaetae to the tunnel walls when a careful earthworm comes to the surface, so tenaciously that its body occasionally tears if the choke pulls hard enough and long enough.

But the worm’s tiny spines have just as much control on the tunnel walls lined with liquid mud in this moist topsoil as my boots have on the gritty floor below my feet.

There is only one possible result in a rivalry with a thrush.

Further along the road, between flattened molehills at the base of the slope, another subterranean resident seems to have been forced out of his flooded tunnels: water gushes from the exit hole of a mole.

When spring brings drier weather, moles and worms will return to aerate and drain the cavities in this grassland.

By midsummer it will be a sea of flowering grasses, but today my mud-stained boots grow heavier with each step.


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