Wildflowers on the verge of disappearing | Environment

Orchid-spotters have long-known that the best site in the UK to take in a display of pyramidal orchids is a roadside verge in Warwickshire, yet the role verges play in conservation isn’t widely appreciated. There are almost 251,000 acres of rural road verges across the country that are home to 703 species of wild plants – 87 of which are facing extinction.

Britain has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s as land has been turned over to grow food crops. Rural roadside verges and small, family-owned farms remain the only places left for species such as the crested cow-wheat, spiked rampion and man orchid to thrive. These roadside verges represent the last stronghold of British wildflowers yet they are being mown down by local councils because of budgetary pressures and a lack of guidance, conservationists have warned.

The Local Government Association says councils must keep verges short to ensure motorists have a good line of sight and allow pedestrians to walk safely alongside busy roads. Other reasons are to prevent the spread of weeds and invasive species into private gardens and pressure from local communities to maintain a certain aesthetic appearance.

But the charity Plantlife says local councils are “cutting too much and too early”, depriving flowers of the chance to seed and reproduce. It wants the first cutting, which is currently taking place in May or June, to be delayed until late July, and for councils to manage verges for wildlife in a way that would encourage wildflowers.

“It all boils down to a change of management,” says Dr Trevor Dines, botanical specialist at Plantlife. “Yes, the verges need management and you have to have an annual cut, but what we’re finding is species being mown down in their prime. There is a battle on either side of the hedge – we’ve already lost the battle on the farmers’ side, now we are starting to lose it on the road side too. There is a sense of summer being removed from our roadsides.”

Wildflowers are important as just one species can support a whole ecosystem from fungi and invertebrates, through insect-eating birds and small mammals, to birds of prey. They are key habitats for pollinators such as bees and butterflies, whose numbers have seen huge declines in recent years.

“A huge number of species use these plants. The common birds-foot trefoil, for example, which has a lovely pea-like flower, can provide food for more than 160 different types of invertebrates,” says Dines. “Plants are the energy house of all other species – if we get that mixture of plants back we get diversity with everything else.”

5464 - Wildflowers on the verge of disappearing | Environment



‘We need to try to encourage people to think about verges as a network of nature reserves,’ says Dr Trevor Dines. Photograph: Alamy

Some species even act as biological lawnmowers. Yellow rattle is an annual plant that taps into the roots of grasses and reduces their growing rate by up to 60%, giving other wildflowers the space to grow. Dorset council is trialling its use on verges to reduce cutting and save money.

Rural verges around junctions, sightlines and road signs are cut early in summer for road safety reasons. Anything that could compromise drivers is necessary, Dines says, but he believes some councils are using this as an excuse to mow all of their verges too early in the year.

Many councils are also harming wildflower verges by cutting a one-metre strip either side of the road and leaving the back section untouched. Cutting one single “pass” of 1m width is quick and cheap, and meets road safety obligations, but “this means the back of the verge turns to scrub quite quickly and we see a loss of diversity,” says Dines. To benefit wildflowers, councils need to return and cut the whole width, doubling the time and the cost.

That way, “the whole verge would be cut properly, and you would get some species coming back and flowering a bit later,” said Dines. “There is a benefit there but in terms of order of preference we would prefer to leave the whole verge to grow as natural meadow would.”

Another challenge is appeasing the so-called neat and tidy brigade, Dines says, who are likely to complain if the verges are left to grow longer for the benefit of wildflowers. “They are a really powerful lobby and there is a strong feeling among councils that they need to be seen to be doing their job,” says Dines. “Delays to verge-cutting is one of the first things people will complain about.”

Plantlife is celebrating nine councils who are leading the way in better managing their road verges for wildlife: Gateshead, Wakefield, Shropshire, Brighton and Hove, Windsor and Maidenhead, Surrey, Poole, Dorset and Cambridgeshire.

Dorset council, with open heathland, chalkland and dry, sandy verges supporting rarities such as wood vetch and fly orchid, is leading the charge. As well as its trial with yellow rattle, it is investigating different methods of management designed to lower soil fertility, leading to reduced grass growth and less frequent cutting.

“We are lucky to have some stunningly beautiful verges with a wide range of habitats that support an even wider range of wildlife,” says Graham Stanley, senior ranger of Dorset countryside. “Rare species of orchid, for example, can thrive here whereas on the other side of the hedge, in an arable or heavily grazed field, they simply cannot.

“Wildlife conservation can coexist with the need for road safety. Changing people’s views on what is a safe and ‘pretty’ verge is one of our most important roles.”

Dines says changing perceptions is key. “We need to try to encourage people to think about verges as a network of nature reserves. For so many people, what they see on the verges is often their only contact with nature.”