Spring and early summer is the most important time for flora and fauna in the UK and it is noticeably a time of abundance, bloom and new birth. But have you given much thought to the role our otherwise unremarkable roadside verges have to play in sustaining wildlife?
Road verges are a vital habitat for wildflowers that have been gradually pushed out of farmland since agricultural intensification, so that means that they support bees, insects, and therefore birds, mammals, and their predators. Many councils are making an effort to manage roadside verges and roundabouts in a more wildlife-friendly manner, and that usually involves a little less management.
I heard recently about a campaign by Plantlife to help protect and maintain roadside verges as vital grassland habitats and to encourage more and more councils to incorporate wildlife-friendly practices. Plantlife believes that with the size of road verges and with proper management there is no reason why there should be any conflict between safety and conservation.
Plantlife also state:
Road verges are hugely important for the diversity of flowering plants that they support.
Grassy verges across the UK are home to over 570 plant species, 12% of which are either
under threat or heading that way. If wooded and disturbed verges are included, the total
number of species is astonishing: over 700 in all or nearly 45% of our native flora; 87 of
them are threatened with extinction.
So when devoid of litter, when in spring bloom, the normally dull roadside verges can be fascinating and teeming with life. They are one of the few refuges for endangered wildflowers that once thrived in meadows. (For other wildflower refuges, see my post about wildlife in churchyards.)
So what guidelines do Plantlife suggest councils adopt?
- Regular management – lowland grass verges should be cut regularly AT THE APPROPRIATE TIME to ensure that wildflowers are not overwhelmed by coarse vegetation
- Removal of cuttings – this exposes underlying soils and encourages new growth
- Plant cycle – plants should be allowed to complete their cycle of growing, flowering, fruiting, seeding. Cutting at the wrong time will deprive insects of nectar
- Habitat diversity – this promotes diversity of species
- Natural or artificial seeding – natural is the preferred method to encourage the spread of wildflowers but when this is not possible it is suggested that areas are sown with commercial seeds as a last resort.
Have to say, my council seems to be quite good at this. I see more and more roundabouts covered with poppies and ox eye daisies and I see that they let the grass grow for a while to give the flowers and insects a chance. Given that poor farmland management has contributed to the decline in wildflower meadows (97% loss, by the way), I really cannot stress how important it is for councils to get the management of roadsides right for the environment. Many of these roads and their accompanying verges have been there for centuries and the areas are therefore unimproved grassland, which is nationally important as it is naturally seeded with many rare and endangered species of wildflower.
So not only does our road network help us to get from A to B, it also provides natural transport corridors between habitats for many threatened species of wildflower and for wildlife. What’s needed is a shift in attitude that roadsides need to be short to be safe and tidy and pretty (they don’t) towards one that sees our roads as a network or corridors between habitats that needs to be protected.