Mown down: The wildlife toll on UK's roadsides

Our obsession with neatness is harming plants, bees and butterflies

A A A

Would you like to see a new national park created in Britain? At no cost? It could be done today, and all it would take is restraint from councils and highways authorities. How? We stop our countrywide obsession with mowing and strimming roadside verges, and treat nearly all of their 600,000 acres as hay meadows.

The result, says the charity Plantlife, would be a huge boost for wild flowers, happy hunting grounds for bees, butterflies and other insects, and wildlife corridors for small mammals, rodents and amphibians. And the area that could be transformed is huge. Britain has 937 square miles of verges, a total larger than the country's biggest national park, and almost twice the size of Exmoor and the New Forest combined.

Plantlife has launched a campaign aimed at persuading councils to manage verges for wildlife by stopping the increasingly obsessive cutting and spraying of verges when plants are in flower. This desire for sterile tidiness has meant the destruction of thousands of miles of attractive and valuable wild flowers. In recent years, reports of major losses have included: verges in north Northumberland where lady's smock, cranesbill, ox-eye daisy, water avens, red campion, field scabious and yellow rattle cut down as they bloomed; orchids growing beside the B845 near Oban destroyed; a verge containing the rare narrow-leaved helleborine (a type of orchid) mown to the ground three years running; the wrecking of a newly planted wild flower area beside the A534; purple orchids beside the A35 in Dorset thrashed away; and many, many more examples, from Kent to Kincardine.

Plantlife's Dr Trevor Dines said: "It is almost ironic that the way we manage our road verges now encourages coarse and thuggish plants. Most verges, smothered in cuttings, might as well be just strips of concrete. Plantlife receives more calls on this subject than any other, from members of the public distraught and angry that their favourite verges full of cowslips and orchids are being mown down in the name of neatness and good management." Eyewitness accounts sent to the charity include one from central Bedfordshire of "wild grasses, ox-eye daisies and poppies mown down in their prime"; and from Norfolk of "a vast array of wild flowers, beautiful colours, lovely smells, and hundreds of bees, butterflies and other insects … all gone now and all that is left is short, brown grass".

And a failure to clear the cuttings has compounded the error by adding nitrate to the land, making the habitat less congenial for our rarest wild flowers (which prefer poor soil), and allowing fewer, larger species such as nettles and cow parsley to bully anything smaller and more fragile off the patch.

Some councils do manage selected verges for wild flowers. West Sussex County Council is not alone in maintaining a list of "notable road verges" that are protected, and Plantlife works with Hampshire, Worcestershire, and several other councils already. The charity says the Highways Agency division west of Exeter is also "exemplary". One of the results of its work is the junction on the A38 near Chudleigh in Devon, which is home to six species of orchid, including 1,100 greater butterfly orchids.

Other good examples reported are verges on the Isle of Wight with vetches and trefoils growing, on which adonis, chalkhill, small and common blue butterflies feed; a verge in Warwickshire which has the county's largest population of pyramidal orchids and rockrose; more than 250 species of flowers growing beside the A369 in North Somerset; and vetches and thyme growing on the Portway roundabout in Andover, Hampshire. Dozens of councils have now responded to Plantlife's campaign by getting in touch and wanting to know how they can do the same.

Andy Byfield, landscape conservation manager for Plantlife, said: "The area of roadside verges we have in the country is the same size as the public forest estate, the projected sell-off of which provoked such a huge row. So why not also get worked up about saving a similarly large and important area for wildlife?"

What Plantlife wants is for verges to be treated as hay meadows (something authorities in countries such as Switzerland do routinely), and to be cut just twice a year (very early, and late in the growing season), and certainly not before they have flowered and set seed. The incessant cutting of verges is driven partly by habit, a preference for neat, mown grassland, and, says the Local Government Association, a concern for road safety, especially what it claims is plants blocking lines of sight. But Plantlife says that nearly all species benefiting from hay meadow management grow no higher than a foot. Mr Byfield said: "Cutting within a metre of the road and at junctions is fair enough."

A Highways Agency spokesperson said: "We have sown and planted more than 100 hectares of wild flowers and companion grasses on new road schemes in the past 20 years to act as a seed source to colonise wider areas. Our approach to management is to use a light touch."

If more councils do respond, then the result could be a billion wild flowers blooming, a new haven for Britain's declining bee and butterfly populations, and a boost for biodiversity in these wildlife corridors. In effect, a whole new national park. And all we have to do is less.

News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits