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Eric Shackle Writes: How Tom Shufflebotham Charmed 511 Worms

Eric Shackle introduces us to the gentle art of worm-charming.

Eric, a journalist with an insatiable curiosity to investigate events around the world, writes memorable features that often amaze, and always entertain. To read more of them please visit his world-famous e-book www.bdb.co.za/shackle/

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.

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 British 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 zaney sports such as indoor hand gliding, underwater Ludo and ice tiddly-winks (similar to curling but the tiddles go further).

"The International Committee of IFCWAP 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, 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."

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 championship was won by Geoff and Davina Sandberg, who captured 127 worms.

We wondered how Tom Shufflebotham and the other contestants had managed to charm those English worms. We found the technique described by a British poet and environmentalist, Dr. Gordon J.L. Ramel, who obviously has a deep affection for worms. He wrote:

One of the strangest ways that humans relate to Annelids is in the hobby of 'Worm Charming'. This involves enticing earthworms from their holes (catching them), originally it was a means of acquiring worms for bait, but now-a-days it is a sport.

The world record as far as I know is held by Tom Shufflebotham who charmed 511 worms from their underground hideouts from an area of 3 square metres in only 30 minutes during the 1980 Annual Worm Charming Championships held in Cheshire UK.

The rules specify that the worms must be brought to the surface without using refreshment, stimulation, drugs or digging. Tom used a method called twanging which involves sticking a 4-pronged pitchfork into the ground and twanging it.

Annelids range in size from the Giant Earthworms, of which Michrochaetus rappi (Michrochaetus michrochaetus) is the largest, this magnificent animal has an average length of 1.36 m (54 ins) and a record breaking specimen has been recorded that measured 6.7 metres (22 ft) in length, it was 2cm (0.8 ins) in diameter. Larger worms have been reported but not scientifically proven. The smallest Annelid known to science is Chaetogaster annandalai which is full grown at 0.5 mm (0.02 ins)

FOOTNOTE. Gordon J.L. Ramel, who lives in North Tawton, Devon (UK) is a well-published poet who also holds a Master's Degree in Ecology from the University of Exeter. A dedicated environmentalist, he has written two marvellous parodies of Wordsworth's Daffodils and Blake's The Tiger.

The International Federation of Charming Worms and Allied Pastimes
They've All Caught Worms Chester Chronicle http://iccheshireonline.icnetwork.co.uk/0300whatson/0800events/tm_objectid=14411756&method=full&siteid=50020&headline=they-ve-all-caught-worms--name_page.html#story_continue
The Amazing World of Annelids http://www.earthlife.net/inverts/annelida.html
Dr. Ramel's home page http://www.earthlife.net/insects/
Darwin's worms page http://www.strange-attractor.co.uk/darworms.htm


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