Thursday, 15 May 2014

Why Our Road Verge Wildflowers are Worth Saving for Wildlife

Andy Byfield
Landscape Conservation Manager

For a few short weeks in May, the great outdoors turns a vibrant, almost claustrophobic green.  Oak, beech and sycamore are in fresh young leaf, whilst the grasses of pastureland and arable field alike seemingly burgeon before our very eyes.  With so much herbage all around, the environment should be in fine fettle, yet so often those same green fields are largely devoid of wildlife, save for a fine sward of ryegrass, and the occasional weed in a gateway.  Their former life and colour has literally been swamped by the repeated dosing of fertilisers and weedkillers.

At the same time, our best road verges give an inkling of just how colourful our countryside used to be. Down here in the south-west of England, a ‘technicolour dreamcoat’ of bluebell, red campion, greater stitchwort, buttercup and early purple orchid are at their glorious best as I write these words, and as the season progresses, so these will be replaced in turn by marsh orchid, ox-eye daisy and much else.  In fact, our verges can be seen as a microcosm of Britain’s hugely varied habitats and landscapes, providing dry and wet rocky outcrop, fine turf,heath, scrub and woodland, often in surprisingly short succession.

Thus verges in Hampshire harbour gleaming long-leaved helleborines and other woodlanders, mimicking the vegetation of nearby woodland; in East Anglia, the likes of rarities such as field wormwood, grape hyacinth and perennial knawel on Breckland verges are a reminder of the summer-dry continental climate of this peculiar corner of England; whilst globeflower, melancholy thistle and wood cranesbill crammed verges of northern England and Scotland are a glimpse of the former glory of our lost upland haymeadows. Apparently, roughly two-thirds of our flowering plants crop up somewhere or other along a wayside.  Its a sad fact, but as the wider countryside has lost its meadows and heathlands, so our verges become an ever more important haven for plants and animals, the unofficial nature reserves of cliché.

Of course, in the distant past – before my time even! – wayside verges were grazed by livestock and doubtless cut as a bonus crop of hay, yet in the sixties and seventies, I remember when the exuberant May-time verge-side herbage were routinely ‘dampened’ with a liberal dose of weedkiller.  In more enlightened times, the sprays have largely gone and the conservation movement has been effective in identifying special stretches as protected verges, perhaps to conserve some rare butterfly or orchid, or a particularly flowery grassland.  These latter efforts have unquestionably saved some of our finest surviving verge habitat, but it seems to me that the time has come to make sure that all verges are managed sympathetically, not just the best.  After all, the 2013 State of Nature report showed that 60% of our rarer plants and animals continue to decline, confirming the findings of Defra’s 2010 review of England’s wildlife sites, Making space for nature.

In it, the panel’s chair, Professor Sir John Lawton, commented that there “is compelling evidence that England’s collection of wildlife sites are generally too small and too isolated, leading to declines in many of England’s characteristic species”. According to Lawton, the solution lies in ‘bigger, better and more joined-up’ habitats for biodiversity, recognising the real benefits that ecological corridors could have in allowing nature to thrive.  I cannot think of any way of linking our landscapes together, than bringing good management to our stock of road verges.

The area of vergeland habitat in Britain is equivalent to the area of the Public Forest Estate in England – a thrillingly large resource if managed properly.  And there is plenty of evidence that with good management, verges can rapidly develop stunning, flower-rich habitats, with a bounty of insect life in tow, in a surprisingly short time under such management.

True, the budgets available to our highways authorities – the Highways Agency and the county councils – is more restricted than ever before, but sympathetic management could involve as little as shifting the mowing dates by just a few weeks.  It is great that Plantlife is relaunching its road verge campaign this month – and we’d love it if you join our campaign, alongside our generous celebrities, in encouraging our councils to cherish this invaluable wildlife resource.

Useful links:

No comments:

Post a Comment