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Tom Shufflebotham Charmed 511 Earthworms

Tom Shufflebotham Charmed 511 Earthworms (Despite A New Zealand Pest)

By Eric Shackle, in Sydney, Australia

Villagers in Willaston, near Nantwich, Cheshire (UK) made a thorough security check for eight weeks before the annual World Worm Charming Championships were held there last week. They were not looking for terrorists, but for New Zealand flatworms.

First sighted in Ireland 40 years ago, NZ flatworms are multplying alarmingly, spreading through many parts of Ireland, England and Scotland, where they are regarded as a pest.

"When the flatworm locates an earthworm it secretes digestive juices which dissolve the earthworm into a ‘soup’ which is then sucked up by the flatworm," says The Local Planet editorial team. "Once the flatworm becomes established on a piece of ground, the native earthworm population can decline to a level at which earthworms are barely detectable."

Of all the world's weird and wondrous sporting events and pastimes, the gentle art of worm-charming surely takes the cake as the most bizarre.

On the New South Wales Central Coast, 80km. north of Sydney, I've often seen fishermen dragging hessian bags containing putrid offal or long-dead fish over mangrove swamps, to attract giant beach worms to the surface (I did it myself as a teenager). As soon as a worm pokes its head above the mud, the fisherman grabs it, and drags the wriggler (which may be 2.5 metres long) from its lair, to use as choice bait. But there's nothing charming about that.

They catch earthworms differently in Britain. Best results seem to be 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 a Cheshire website.

"True, there had been rather dubious unsubstantiated reports of a similar activity in Florida, USA some 10 years previous, but this was the first time a true competition with strict rules had been held. The village of Willaston, near Nantwich, Cheshire has been the venue for the annual World Championships ever since.

"A regulatory body of control was formed to compile and enforce a total of 18 rules governing all aspects of Worm Charming. The International Federation of Charming Worms and Allied Pastimes (IFCWAP) not only exists for Worm Charming, but will look after the interests of other zany sports such as indoor hand gliding, underwater Ludo and ice tiddly-winks (similar to curling but the tiddles go further).

"The International Committee ... is formed by Mike Forster, Chief Wormer, and Mr Gordon Farr, Former Headmaster of Willaston School, who now enjoys life long Presidency and meets only once a year and at other times of national crisis.

"For example, when the New Zealand flat worm was discovered a number of years ago in some parts of the country, the threat to the common earthworm was of great public interest in Willaston and volunteers from the village still regularly patrol the site of the Worm Arena for at least 8 weeks prior to the event leaving no stone unturned, for that is where this hideous creature preyed on Willy Worm."

Two years ago, according to a report in the Chester Chronicle, Tim Holmes flew from Sydney 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."

Voice of a sceptic

SO... the so-called "Tom Shufflebotham" [cough] "charmed" 511 worms in half an hour? [cough] I've tried this several times on a nice damp loamy lawn and blanked, apart from one scrawny worm I'm convinced it's all a long-running April fool's prank.
-- GlennB, in a UK forum, Anglers' Net April 10, 2006.

The 2006 world championship was won by Geoff and Davina Sandburg, who captured 127 worms.

The International Federation of Charming Worms and Allied Pastimes
Do flatworms threaten soil fertility?
They've All Caught Worms Chester Chronicle
Darwin's worms page


* This story will be featured in the August edition of

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