Mown down: The wildlife toll on UK's roadsides

Our obsession with neatness is harming plants, bees and butterflies

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.