Wales - What's under your wellies

No.:  2018-09
March 2018

Wales’ No. 1 wildlife TV presenter, Iolo Williams, is urging schools to take part in an exciting project to find out what’s living under our feet. This work is so important because many bird species, such as Blackbirds and Robins, as well as some mammals, rely on earthworms and other soil invertebrates – the creepy crawlies that make soil what it is – as main parts of their diet.  

Soil invertebrates and in particular earthworms, are needed to release nutrients from dead vegetation back into the soil and make it available for use by plants. They also play important roles in soil structure and food webs. Despite the importance of soil invertebrates, we know little about what affects their abundance and how they might be affected by climate change.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has designed and developed a project called What’s Under Your Feet? and has been working with EDF Energy’s environmental education programme, The Pod, to encourage more young people to get involved in science. Nearly 15,000 schoolchildren across the UK have been sampling a 300mmx300mm square of their playing field for soil invertebrates since 2015. The aim is to produce the most comprehensive distribution of this little known fauna that scientists have ever seen. But we have a big hole in our knowledge as we have very little information about soil invertebrates in Wales - only eleven schools in the whole of Wales are currently taking part in this serious scientific study.

Iolo Williams, said, Birds are dependent on other things. They are depending on the plants to provide food for them, but more than anything, a lot of our birds are dependent on what’s under our feet. Whether they be earthworms, or grubs, or ants, or other insects, birds are completely dependent on those. The BTO, and I, want schools all over Wales to get involved in What’s Under Your Feet? We want children of all ages to get out and to survey what they find beneath their shoes, beneath their wellies.”

It is well known that much of the wildlife that inhabits our shores is in decline, or under threat. Some of our best known birds are disappearing before our eyes. One in five Green Woodpeckers in Wales have been lost over the last 20 years. Being at the bottom of the food chain, invertebrates underpin a whole ecosystem that ultimately leads to us, so it is vital that we understand better what we have beneath our feet.

The first scientific paper using data collected by schools doing this experiment has been published this week in an international soil journal, and shows just how sensitive the animals that live under our feet are to dry weather.

Dr Blaise Martay, the lead author of the study, said “This study quantifies for the first time how periods of dry weather in the summer can affect breeding bird populations like thrushes and starlings, which rely on earthworms and other soil invertebrates to feed. Many of these are declining in southern Britain, which our results suggest may be because they struggle to find enough food during hot dry summers. Green Woodpecker losses in Wales might be explained as a direct result of this project as ants are an important component of their diets – are ants and their pupae less abundant in Wales than in the rest of the UK? With so little information about what’s under our feet in Wales we need help from schoolchildren across the whole of Wales to help us find out.”

Iolo added, “So please, schools in Wales, will you get out there for us? Get your hands dirty, get your feet dirty. It doesn’t matter if you get wet, it’s all part of it, and find out what is down there in the soil.” 
 
To find out more, please visit www.bto.org/wuyf
To access the full paper:
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0031405617301865?via%3Dihub

Notes to editors  

1. What’s Under Your Feet is a nationwide project run by the British Trust for Ornithology in partnership with EDF Energy

2. About the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)
The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) strives to ensure that birds and their habitats are protected for future generations to enjoy. We have an 85-year track record of collating, analysing and delivering robust, respected scientific information that underpins conservation action. Since our beginnings as a small group of volunteer birdwatchers determined to make a difference, we have grown to a network of more than 60,000 volunteers. Our expert scientists design surveys, research programmes and monitoring schemes that provide the evidence required to tackle some of the most pressing issues affecting birds and their habitats.  Our volunteers contribute the equivalent of over 900 full-time staff to monitoring birds every year. As a result, we are the proud custodians of some of the most extensive and long-running datasets about birds anywhere in the world. Our scientists convert this volunteer-gathered data into popular and peer-reviewed publications which provide the foundations of effective conservation action.  We are succeeding in shedding light on the worrying issues facing the UK’s birds and their habitats and are making significant progress in understanding actions that can be taken to reverse declines in bird populations. We have a clear track record in using this evidence to inform Government policy, industry, other charities and NGOs, academics and the planning sector.

3. About What’s Under Your Feet?
In a joint project that began in 2015 the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and EDF Energy have been encouraging schools across Britain to take part in a serious scientific study that will for the first time map what is under our feet. Schoolchildren have been sampling a 300mmx300mm square of their playing field for soil invertebrates – the creepy crawlies that make soil what it is – with the aim of producing the most comprehensive distribution of this little known fauna that scientists have ever seen. Why?  It is well known that much of the wildlife that inhabits our shores is in decline, or under threat. Some of our best known birds are disappearing before our eyes. We have lost over half of our House Sparrows and Starlings during the last twenty-five years. Being at the bottom of the food chain, invertebrates underpin a whole ecosystem that ultimately leads to us, so it is vital that we understand better what we have beneath our feet.

4. About The Pod
The Pod, EDF Energy’s environmental education programme is a completely free resource (www.jointhepod.org) and aims to help educate children about a range of environmental topics and inspire them to choose Science and Engineering as a career choice. The Pod has practical activities, teaching materials, games and information – all linked to the national curriculum and provides resources and activities for 4-14 year olds.

Since its launch in 2008, the Pod has registered over 22,000 schools and engaged with school children from across the UK, as well as schools in 56 other countries.  The Pod works closely with Eco-Schools to ensure Pod activities automatically count towards a school’s application for Eco-Schools Bronze, Silver, and Green Flag accreditation. The programme also works closely with the Met Office, Wastebuster and the British Trust for Ornithology to design and deliver its content and resources.     
 
5. About EDF Energy
EDF Energy is the UK’s largest producer of low-carbon electricity, meeting around one-fifth of the country’s demand and supplying millions of customers and businesses with electricity and gas.
 
It generates electricity with eight nuclear power stations, wind farms, one gas and two coal power stations, as well as with combined heat and power plants.
 
EDF Energy is leading the UK's nuclear renaissance with the construction of a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C. This will provide low carbon electricity to meet 7% of UK demand. The project is already making a positive impact on the local and national economy, British industry, as well as boosting skills and education. EDF Energy also invests in a range of low carbon technologies including renewables and battery storage. It is applying research and development expertise to improve the performance of existing generation and developing the potential of new technologies.
 
The company provides gas and electricity for more than 5 million customer accounts and is the biggest supplier of electricity by volume in Great Britain and the largest supplier to British business. It offers innovative energy systems for commercial customers and digital innovation for customers at home.  EDF Energy has launched its own innovation accelerator, Blue Lab, which focuses on making customers’ lives easier.
 
To find out more about the UK's energy challenges look atwww.edfenergy.com/energyfuture/.