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Gruntin' and Charmin' for Worms
A look at one of the world's strangest sports
Eric Shackle (shack)     Print Article 
Published 2006-08-16 15:59 (KST)   
Veteran journalist and writer Eric Shackle, of Sydney, Australia, is OhmyNews International's oldest citizen reporter. Eric discovered the Internet seven years ago at the age of 80, and now writes The World's First Multi-national ebook.  <Editor's Note>
Have you ever watched birds such as Australian magpies, peewits, and English blackbirds and thrushes hunting for worms?

They listen intently, peck brisk tattoos on the ground with their strong beaks, then promptly capture those wriggling snacks that have come up from their burrows.

Charles Darwin mentioned that phenomenon more than a century ago. The last book the famous evolutionist wrote before his death in 1882 was a study of earthworms. He wrote:
"The Peewit...seems to know instinctively that worms will emerge if the ground is made to tremble; for Bishop Stanley states...that a young peewit kept in confinement used to stand on one leg and beat the turf with the other leg until the worms crawled out of their burrows, when they were instantly devoured. Nevertheless, worms do not invariably leave their burrows when the ground is made to tremble, as I know by having beaten it with a spade, but perhaps it was beaten too violently."
Here in Australia, I've often seen fishermen dragging hessian bags containing putrid offal or long-dead fish over the sand or mud, to attract giant beach worms to the surface (I did it myself as a teenager).

They're attracted by the smell instead of being scared or pained by the vibrations. As soon as a worm pokes its head above the mud, the fisherman grabs it, and drags the wriggler, which may be 2.5 meters long, from its lair, to use as choice bait.

They catch earthworms differently in Britain. They copy the birds' technique.

Of all the world's weird and wondrous sporting events and pastimes, the annual worm-charming contest in the Cheshire village of Willaston takes the cake as the most bizarre.

They say that the best results are achieved by vibrating the tynes of a garden fork driven 15cm into the turf, a method they call twanging.

Some stamp on the ground, while others, emulating Indian snake charmers, play music to the worms. Perhaps the 1966 pop song "Good Vibrations"?

"On Saturday 5th July 1980 local Willaston farmer's son, Tom Shufflebotham amazed a disbelieving world by charming a total of 511 worms out of the ground in half an hour," says an article on the contest Web site.

Two years ago, according to a report in The Chester Chronicle, Tim Holmes flew from Sydney, Australia, to take part with his friend Phil Morris, of Chester.

"Their unique method of didgeridoo-playing, coupled with a samba drum-beat, yielded only three worms," the newspaper reported. It quoted Tim as saying: "We did appallingly. It was only when a neighbouring charmer came to help us with a pitchfork that we managed to get into double figures. It was still worth the trip though. I had a great afternoon."

Geoff Sandberg and his daughter Davina won the 2006 championship, attracting and capturing 127 worms in 30 minutes.

I emailed Geoff, congratulating him on his success, and asked him to describe his methods. He replied:
"I won the competition this year with my daughter Davina, at (for me) the 21st attempt.

I just use the very ordinary twanging method to charm worms. You need a bit of luck with a good plot to work in as well, because the distribution of the worms seems to be entirely random.

Some Australian friends sent me photos they took of me and Davina in action and with the "Golden Worm" trophy afterwards. I think they were totally bemused that people in England spend their time doing such crazy things when they could have been in the pub."
On the other side of the Atlantic, in the U.S., the remote village of Sopchoppy, Florida, (population 253) holds a Worm Gruntin' Festival in the first week of April each year. It seems to resemble the worm-charming contest in Willaston.

Worm hunters in both places use similar techniques. While the charmers drive forks into the ground and vibrate the tynes, the grunters rub steel bars with wooden stakes. In both cases, worms promptly rise to the surface, either to escape the vibrations or just to discover what's causing that unseemly racket.

"The worm-catching process sounds much like a rooting pig," Thomas C. Tobin wrote four years ago in the St. Petersburg Times, describing Sopchoppy's second festival:
"About 20 young contestants and their adult helpers gathered in a vacant downtown field with stobs and stakes provided by festival organizers. Some brought their own tools.

After 30 minutes of work in the shadow of a weathered train depot, the prize -- $50 cash and a set of worm gruntin' tools -- was collected by 7-year-old Hannah Oxendine of Tallahassee. Her plastic cup of worms, about one-quarter full, weighed the most."
Now dear readers, before you decide to go outside and charm up half the worms in your town, remember that they play a vital part in keeping the earth healthy. Worms aerate the soil with their constant tunneling, helping much needed water to reach plant roots.
A version of this story appeared on Eric Shackle's Web site.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Eric Shackle

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