Some of the widely used cover crops in temperate agroecosystems (including species of the Brassicaceae and Poaceae) have been shown to exhibit allelopathic effects. In particular, various Brassicaceae have been reported to act as biofumigants against a variety of soil-borne pests through the release of i.a. isothiocyanates (ITC) from glucosinolate precursors. Although these allelochemicals may potentially reduce the need for application of synthetic pesticides, their effects on beneficial soil ecosystem engineers such as earthworms (Lumbricidae) have not been assessed yet.
Food choice chambers were used to assess short-term food preferences of Lumbricus terrestris L. for lacy phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia BENTH.), the Poaceae Italian ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum LAM.) and oats (Avena sativa L.), and the Brassicaceae yellow mustard (Sinapis alba L.) and rapeseed (Brassica napus L.) while litter bags were used to study long-term litter preference under field conditions. Habitat preference of L. terrestris was determined through simple habitat preference units.
Ryegrass residues were a preferred food resource, both in fresh and partly decomposed state, over mustard, phacelia or rapeseed residues, and these were in turn more fed on than oats. Litter disappeared at a fast and variable rate from litter bags under field conditions. No clear relationships with residue C:N ratio were observed. Habitats in which living oat plants were present were avoided in comparison to habitats with bare soil or yellow mustard plants.
In conclusion, brassicaceous cover crops are not preferred nor avoided by L. terrestris compared to the other cover crops in this study. Decreased ITC release and earthworm exposure under field conditions may further lower the risk of harmful effects, but further research on the long-term impact is needed