LOUISE MIDGLEY explains why we need to protect a vital habitat of many wild flowers and animals: the humble road verge
Verdant verges are estimated to cover a whopping 600,000 acres across Britain and with the right maintenance are able to support a vast spectrum of wildlife.
The wild plant conservation charity Plantlife has carried out a study that shows Britain’s road verges are home to 703 species of wild plants, 87 of which are either threatened with extinction or heading that way.
Many of these beautiful wildflowers play an important role in the natural food chain as they attract insects to feed on their nectar and pollen and the seed heads they produce feed small mammals and birds, who in turn attract larger predators. With every flower lost, there is a measurable decline of butterflies, moths, pollinating insects, bees and birds.
Over the past 65 years, swathes of floriferous meadowlands across the country have been usurped to give way to highly fertilised agricultural land, making the presence of roadside verges all the more important.
It’s estimated that well over 90 per cent of wildflower meadows have disappeared and these areas of outstanding beauty are now a rarity.
In many parts of the country, rural road verges are the last remaining stretches of natural sanctuary for wildlife but whether they continue to remain such valuable spaces lies in the hands of local councils which are charged with their maintenance.
In days gone by, local authorities would cut these strips of land once a year, allowing flowers time to set seed and start a new cycle. By encouraging them to return every year, the growth of over-zealous grasses was controlled.
Now, it’s not unusual to see verges being cut back at regular intervals from spring to autumn and beautiful wild flowers being shawn off in their prime.
Needless to say, if the growth on a verge obstructs the vision of motorists, there is no question it should be cut back for the safety of drivers and pedestrians. However for those verges filled with light and fluffy vegetation, the simple change of cutting once a year could make all the difference to the conservation of endangered flora and fauna.
Plantlife has produced new management guidelines and is urging the public to sign a petition asking their local councils to adopt them.
Some councils are leading the way. Trials in Dorset are taking place to investigate how to combat the over-vigorous growth of grass on fertile verges, which is both detrimental to wildflowers and obscures drivers’ sight-lines.
In some areas they have stripped the turf and introduced semi-parasitic plants such as yellow rattle. This pretty, harmless-looking, little annual reduces the vigour of grasses by sending out roots that grow into those of neighbouring grasses and by stealing their nutrients, weakens their growth.
Plantlife is helping to showcase the work of councils like Dorset as an example to others around the country how it can be done. Its guidelines are currently being applied to 11,700 km of verge and with the public’s support it is hoped this will increase every year.
To sign the petition visit:
www.plantlife.org.uk / 01722 342730