But such impure superficial chalk, when dissolved, would leave a larger supply of earthy matter to be added to the mould than in the case of pure chalk. Besides the loss caused by percolation, some fine earth is certainly washed down the sloping grass-covered surfaces of our Downs. The washing-down process, however, will be checked in the course of time; for although I do not know how thin a layer of mould suffices to support worms, yet a limit must at last be reached; and then their castings would cease to be ejected or would become scanty.

The following cases show that a considerable quantity of fine earth is washed down. The thickness of the mould was measured at points 12 yards apart across a small valley in the Chalk near Winchester. The sides sloped gently at first; then became inclined at about 20 degrees; then more gently to near the bottom, which transversely was almost level and about 50 yards across. In the bottom, the mean thickness of the mould from five measurements was 8.3 inches; whilst on the sides of the valley, where the inclination varied between 14 degrees and 20 degrees, its mean thickness was rather less than 3.5 inches. As the turf-covered bottom of the valley sloped at an angle of only between 2 degrees and 3 degrees, it is probable that most of the 8.3-inch layer of mould had been washed down from the flanks of the valley, and not from the upper part. But as a shepherd said that he had seen water flowing in this valley after the sudden thawing of snow, it is possible that some earth may have been brought down from the upper part; or, on the other hand, that some may have been carried further down the valley. Closely similar results, with respect to the thickness of the mould, were obtained in a neighbouring valley.

St. Catherine's Hill, near Winchester, is 327 feet in height, and consists of a steep cone of chalk about 0.25 of a mile in diameter. The upper part was converted by the Romans, or, as some think, by the ancient Britons, into an encampment, by the excavation of a deep and broad ditch all round it. Most of the chalk removed during the work was thrown upwards, by which a projecting bank was formed; and this effectually prevents worm-castings (which are numerous in parts), stones, and other objects from being washed or rolled into the ditch. The mould on the upper and fortified part of the hill was found to be in most places only from 2.5 to 3.5 inches in thickness; whereas it had accumulated at the foot of the embankment above the ditch to a thickness in most places of from 8 to 9.5 inches. On the embankment itself the mould was only 1 to 1.5 inch in thickness; and within the ditch at the bottom it varied from 2.5 to 3.5, but was in one spot 6 inches in thickness. On the north-west side of the hill, either no embankment had ever been thrown up above the ditch, or it had subsequently been removed; so that here there was nothing to prevent worm-castings, earth and stones being washed into the ditch, at the bottom of which the mould formed a layer from 11 to 22 inches in thickness. It should however be stated that here and on other parts of the slope, the bed of mould often contained fragments of chalk and flint which had obviously rolled down at different times from above. The interstices in the underlying fragmentary chalk were also filled up with mould.

My son examined the surface of this hill to its base in a south- west direction. Beneath the great ditch, where the slope was about 24 degrees, the mould was very thin, namely, from 1.5 to 2.5 inches; whilst near the base, where the slope was only 3 degrees to 4 degrees, it increased to between 8 and 9 inches in thickness. We may therefore conclude that on this artificially modified hill, as well as in the natural valleys of the neighbouring Chalk Downs, some fine earth, probably derived in large part from worm-castings, is washed down, and accumulates in the lower parts, notwithstanding the percolation of an unknown quantity into the underlying chalk; a supply of fresh earthy matter being afforded by the dissolution of the chalk through atmospheric and other agencies.

Charles Darwin

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