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THE CONSERVATION OF ROADSIDE VERGES IN SUFFOLK C . W . PIERCE a n d C . E .

RANSON

Introduction IN March, 1970, the East Suffolk Federation of Women's Institutes invited the Suffolk Trust for Nature Conservation and the Nature Conservancy to address their Annual General Meeting on the subject of roadside verges. At this meeting the origin, wildlife interest and management of verges was described (by C.E.R.) and then an account was given (by C.W.P.) of the conservation of verges in Suffolk, and a proposal for the active participation of Women's Institutes in the conservation of verges was presented. This paper is an extended Version of this joint address. Origin, wildlife interest, and management of verges Roadside verges receive a great deal of attention and have large sums of money spent on them, however ill-managed and neglected they often seem to be. In Suffolk the highway authorities cut or spray them two or three times a year to reduce traffic hazards, to maintain a degree of tidiness, and occasionally to control noxious weeds. The verges suffer from salt-spray in winter, mud and dust all the year, and also the continuing effects of chemical pollution from passing vehicles. They are useful reserves of land for road widening schemes, for laybys, for treeplanting, and, illegally, for additional farmland; they are storage sites for roadstone and grit; they are the ideal places for laying water, electricity, telephone, and gas mains. In addition, they have other uses of a less utilitarian character: at one time or another we have all had our eye caught by a fine display of white campion, buttercup or oxeye or by butterflies or birds feeding on verges and their adjoining hedges. However, what is pleasure to us is life and death to wild plants and animals, and attention needs to be drawn to roadside verges as places where life carries on a perilous existence—an existence which in some places started last year, in others a decade ago, and elsewhere, perhaps, centuries ago. What sort of habitats do verges provide and how did they come into existence? Stone Age men and their successors had tracks connecting the main Settlements; the Romans built a network of roads over the whole country; but the present system of highways evolved principally from pathways, cattle and cart tracks made to serve the Anglo-Saxon and late mediaeval villages, providing access to fields, meadows, heaths, and woods and leading to adjoining villages and neighbouring farms. Much of the land at that time was open, but there were boundary ditches, often with hedges,


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marking the limits of parishes and farms. FieHs, heaths, and vvoods came up to the edge of the road or track, much as commons, vvoods, heaths—and some fields—come up to the road today. Through changes in land management and tenure, it became desirable to enclose a large proportion of East Anglia in the 14th to 19th centuries. Hedges were planted along roads and tracks, but gave plenty of room for carts and animals. Thus highways included a part of the former heath, common, field or meadow as a verge, and so the oldest verges are made up of largely uncultivated remnants of the former land with the surviving portions of the plant and animal communities of 400 or more years ago. These surviving plant and animal communities are part of our heritage from the past. Fortunately roads go more or less everywhere, and in every direction, and because of this they cross nearly every type of soil, they can be wet or dry, sunny or shady, windy or sheltered. They have on them representative examples of most inland habitats in this country including tree stumps, wet pasture, dry chalk grassland, heath, ponds, ditches, and woodside. FIG. 1 shows how more than one kind of habitat can be found on one verge. Until recent years, those concerned with the conservation of wildlife paid very little special attention to roadside verges: they were just one of many places where Britain's flora and fauna could survive undisturbed. A few were accorded special attention for their rarities. A verge in Essex had the only British colony of Sickle Hare's Ear (Bupleurum falcatum). This was destroyed by road widening a few years ago, but fortunately, the site was well known and new plants were raised from seed and the plant now flourishes elsewhere in the county. Today, the more intensive use of land for all purposes has drastically reduced the number and variety of all habitats, and verges now rank very highly among Britain's resources of land where plants and animals can live with relatively little disturbance. Verges are especially important in Suffolk, in that they also provide a major element of diversity in that rather monotonous habitat, arable land. It is of the utmost importance to wildlife conservation that a variety of minor habitats in the countryside be maintained, and well-managed verges go a long way towards doing this. Conservation of verges in Suffolk Special attention has been given to roadside verge management in Suffolk in recent years. Initially, only some of the famous verges of Breckland were managed to suit the rare plants growing on them. Subsequently, the Nature Conservancy and the


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Suffolk Trust for Nature Conservation have drawn up schedules of verges in conjunction with the County Surveyors of West and East Suffolk ( T A B L E 1). The cutting is timed to ensure that the flora is not needlessly harmed, and even enhanced in some instances. The County Surveyors have also received advice on the most suitable general management programme to suit the flora on the verges of the rest of the maintained roads in Suffolk. In general, this provides for a cut during late May, 0-3 feet from the road,' and a further cut of the whole verge in late September. This gives most flowering plants a chance to set seed and controls the coarser herbage moderately well. Where road safety is a prime consideration more frequent cutting is obviously desirable. East Suffolk County Council maintains its verges solely by cutting. For three years now West Suffolk has sprayed a mixture of broadleaf herbicide and growth retardant on most of the A class roads and also on one B class road, but cuts the remaining roads. T h e chief disadvantages of using this mixture are the destructive effect it has on annual plants and the weaker perennials, and the promotion of a grassy sward dominated by coarse grasses and herbs such as false-oat grass, cocksfoot, cow parsley, and dock. None of the special stretches of verge are sprayed. Many counties have experimented with this method and subsequently reverted to mechanical cutting. Apart from the management accorded to the special verges, the Conservancy and the Trust receive from the Surveyors notice of roadworks and other activities which might endanger the flora so that protective measures can be taken, but there is always one serious threat which is difficult to forestall. Where the highway is the property of the neighbouring landowner, there is always the temptation for him to remove the highway boundary ditch and hedge and take the verge into the adjoining field. This is an obstruction of the highway and wherever it is noticed the Surveyors take steps to restore the fĂźll width of the highway. However, it takes only one deep ploughing to completely destroy a verge which has taken centuries to develop its flora and associated fauna. Overall, the importance of roadside verges lies in the contribution they make to conserving habitats and the interrelated flora and fauna living in them. There must be many lengths of verge of considerable botanical or zoological interest which are not known by the conservation bodies or the county councils and these verges could be destroyed through ignorance. This likelihood could be lessened considerably by the recording of those verges which appear to be important, by Society and Trust members, by the Women's Institutes, and by the public generally.


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Proposal for participation of the Women's Institutes This proposal, which has still to be worked out in detail, has nve main stages. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

Reporting to the Trust or Nature Conservancy of sites containing species worthy of conservation and management. Decision by the Trust and Conservancy on action to be taken. Discussion with County Council for suitable management. The recording each summer, by people living in the area, of management actually administered. An annual report to be sent t o the Trust on the S t a t e of e a c h of the special lengths of verge.

Reporting of sites or species would be the important contribution which the Women's Institutes could make to the scheme. The Women's Institute members should be in a better position than most people to know the places on their local roadsides and green lanes where single species or good examples of one or more habitats occur. The latter may be appreciated as much for their amemty value as for their biological importance. One point must be emphasised: because no plants of particular interest are noted in one particular year, it does not follow that a plant may not be seen in subsequent seasons. Many species, and orchids are good examples, are very uncertain in their flowermg. They may appear in large numbers in one year or even for ° r t h r e e Years> and not appear again, except possibly for the odd bloom, for some years. This is especially worth remembering when inspecting lengths of verge laid after major roadworks. The seeds of most native wild flowers remain viable for many years while lying dormant in the ground, and disturbance coupled with the absence of scrub and other smothering plants allows the seeds to germmate. It is perhaps significant that some of the rare species already recorded occur where road works took place a few years ago. All roadsides, therefore, should be watched over a period of years. Stages two and three would be the responsibility of the Suffolk Trust for Nature Conservation and the Nature Conservancy. All stretches considered worthy of special management would be notined to the appropriate Institute who would then note the time and extent of cutting by the county council and submit an annual report to the Trust. Conclusion This management of verges for wildlife conservation usually means contmuing past practices and in no way implies untidiness ne glected verge is of no use to the wildlife which needs to be


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conserved. There is no need for conflict between the interests of any individual person or Organisation and conservation when any verge is managed for the maintenance of its wildlife; in fact, one of the most important secondary benefits to the Community from sensitive management of verges is the enhanced beauty of that part of the countryside which most of us see most often. Address to which information and inquiries may be sent: The Nature Conservancy, 19 East Hill, Colchester. or T h e SufFolk Trust for Nature Conservation, County Hall, Ipswich, IP4 2JS. C. W. Pierce, 14 Chalkeith Road, Needham Market, Suffolk. C. E. Ranson, The Nature Conservancy Offices, 19 East Hill, Colchester, Essex.


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History,

Vol.

15, Part

4

The Conservation of Roadside Verges in Suffolk  
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