3 minute read

Life on the verge

Verge management can contribute to cutting costs, boost biodiversity and deliver a myriad of other public benefits

By Theo Plowman

Since the Second World War 97% of the UK’s wildflower rich meadowland has been wiped out by urban development and modern agricultural methods. With it, there has been a devastating decline in biodiversity. We might think the main solution would be mass restoration of these meadows, cutting huge swathes through the countryside but an oft forgotten landscape may be key to reversing this drastic decline.

There are nearly 313,500 miles of rural road verges across the country, these strips of greenery are, for the 23 million people commuting to work by road every day, often their only daily contact with nature. Sadly, these spaces are usually a uniform and bland monoculture of grass with scant traces of life. Yet this could all be changing with increased attention, action and thought going into revitalising our road verges.

New guidelines released this year by Plantlife highlight how taking simple actions could allow Britain’s verges to flourish with more than 400bn wildflowers. The guidance stipulates a different number of cuts depending on the type of grass but has several key principles. Cutting is to happen after July and vitally the removal of all grass cuttings to lower soil fertility and allow a more diverse range of wildflowers to flourish. In essence the soil at verges is too fertile and through simple, cost effective measures this can be reversed.

Currently, much of the UK’s grass road verges are either cut too often and at the wrong time of year, or abandoned to poor quality scrub. Currently grass cuttings are left creating a thick layer which inhibits growth of anything other than hardy grasses, the soil nutrient levels also rocket, creating a vicious cycle of rapidly growing grass. Authorities managing verges face a costly, losing battle to try and stem the cycle.

A wildflower verge in Ulster maintained by Mangnificent Meadows

A wildflower verge in Ulster maintained by Mangnificent Meadows

© Plantlife

The benefits to nature are abundant and apparent, the transformative work done on verges across the country has delivered great boosts in biodiversity – in particular the number and diversity of flowering plants. They are also relatively quick in terms of timescales; great results can be achieved in under a decade.

An example of this in practice is the work done by Butterfly Conservation on the A354 Weymouth Relief Road in Dorset. Construction of this road in 2011 was underpinned by the creation of wildlife friendly verges with a scattering of topsoil designed to avoid high fertility build-ups and a wildflower seed plant.

The reduction of topsoil allowed wildflowers to thrive and the savings to construction were a welcome benefit. Since then a seminatural chalk grassland has flourished and species counts within the verge have sky-rocketed. Butterflies in particular have grown in number with sightings of Small Blue’s going from around 11 to 158.

The benefits are not only for nature but for people and place. For many road verges provide a small window into nature, providing a wonderful display of seasonal flowers. The procession of colour through the year keeps us in touch with the changing seasons and provides us with a sense of place, it has even been claimed that roadside verge meadows reduce driver stress significantly.

With the release of the guidance in September this year there is renewed hope that those involved in verge management will understand how these measures can contribute to cutting costs boost biodiversity and deliver a myriad of other public benefits.

Theo Plowman is Policy and Influencing Manager at the Landscape Institute.