By Rhiannon Jehu
I walk on single track and other unpaved roads as a part of my daily routine. Stepping into the verge and waving ‘Hi’ to passing traffic is normal for me and gives me the opportunity to really enjoy the beauty and colour of our wild flowers; this year’s verges have been blooming beautifully.
In the world of flowers, verges provide a habitat for grassland and meadow species (as well as for scrubland and forest plants in some places). This is essential since we have lost 97% of our meadows since the 1930s. They are now home to almost half of UK wild flower species (over 700) and nearly 45% of our total flora. They cover over 1% of UK land and about 500,000 kilometres. All this makes them crucial habitats for rare and declining plants.
Roadside conditions are relatively undisturbed and the soil is low in nutrition and high in salt (from winter gritting). In areas with heavy traffic there are also high levels of nitrogen and other pollutants. Together, these conditions make verges good for coastal, saltmarsh and cliff species, and also for nitrogen-loving plants.
Wild flowers attract insects which have a wide range of lifestyles. There are herbivores, such as caterpillars, and predators, such as wasps and spiders. Pollinators – bees, hoverflies and the like – are especially important to us humans since they are essential for the growth of many of our food crops. For more on pollinators; Pollinators | Buglife.
Vegetation and insects draw amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds, creating a food-web, and in some places, thriving ecosystems. Verges can act as corridors that reconnect, repopulate and restore sites. They give species the opportunity to travel, mix and feed, improving their life chances and genetic diversity. This leads to healthier, less vulnerable populations; social isolation is as bad for other species as it is for us.
Verges are mown for our safety so drivers can see clearly at junctions and curves in the road. Mowing is also needed to maintain an environment that best suits our native species. It prevents annuals being overwhelmed by more vigorous types and, for best results, it needs to take place late in summer once plants have set seed. These seeds then feed the local food-web and visitors such as migrating birds. They also provide the next generation of flowers.
After mowing, grass clippings need to be removed from a verge. Leaving them in situ makes the soil more nutritious so bigger plants thrive and more delicate species become overwhelmed. Clippings can also act as a blanket preventing some species’ seeds from germinating. Over time these conditions reduce the biodiversity of the verge.
As our climate changes species are evolving, and on the move. Verges are one place where this happens, but there are downsides to having vibrant roadsides. Animals die in RTA’s and verges can be highways for invasive species and weeds as well as plant pests and diseases. These need to be controlled so they don’t spread. However, with care, they can be a powerful tool for conservation and coping with climate change. Indeed, the charity ‘Plantlife’ estimates that if all verges were managed for nature there would be 400 billion more flowers in the UK.
Plantlife, Butterfly Conservation and the Wildlife Trusts have come together and produced a guide to caring for and developing verges where nature can thrive; Managing road verges for wildlife | The Wildlife Trusts.
Several local authorities have produced interesting projects and initiatives:
- East Suffolk Council’s “Pardon the weeds, we’re feeding the bees”
- Monmouthshire County Council Wales “Nature Isn’t Neat” project.