The dormouse, a dozy little creature that spends eight months of the year snoozing, is at the forefront of an unexpected wildlife revolution even as it sleeps.
The endangered animal is finding an unlikely refuge on the motorway verges of southern Britain, says the Highways Agency. Its experts surveyed selected sites for signs of the dormouse and found it in residence in 15 out of 40 places. Another 200 promising areas are still to be investigated.
This news highlights the value of motorway and trunk road verges for flora and fauna. The grassland, scrub and woods beside our major roads total 27,000 hectares, an area the size of the Isle of Wight, and harbour rare plants such as the Deptford pink, green-winged orchid and yellow rattle. They are also home to black hairstreak and white admiral butterflies, and mammals as varied as Daubenton's bats and muntjac deer.
The verges and banks of our major roads now contain 60 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, with another 200 bordering them. Small wonder then, that Tony Sangwine, biodiversity and landscape adviser to the Highways Agency, describes these strips of land as "Britain's least-known nature reserve". And, happily - since only rare, authorised feet are allowed - they are the least visited by humans, too.
The Highways Agency now mends as much damage due to road building as it can, and takes care to provide varied habitats. Some verges are managed as traditional hay meadows, and newer ones planted with wild flower seeds, native shrubs like juniper, and valuable trees such as the black poplar. Last year the HA planted its 50 millionth tree since the Second World War, and it has now put up 1,000 bat boxes and miles of badger fencing, as well as otter runs and ponds for great crested newts.
The floral benefits, either by design or the unearthing of long-dormant seed, are widespread. Rare plants that now flourish on road sides range from green-winged orchids (M40, Bucks) to Deptford pink (Devon and Worcester - two of only 13 sites in Britain), wild daffodils by the M50, and outbreaks of bee, pyramidal, early purple and common spotted orchid. Because of the salt spread on major roads in winter, seaside species also thrive, including Danish scurvy grass (ground-hugging plants whose whitish flowers border hard shoulders in April and May), lesser sea-spurrey, and buck's-horn plantain and grass-leaved orache (both M5).
There are water voles by the M26 and greater horseshoe bats by the A38. The small mammal populations of mice, shrews and voles tempt so many kestrels to hover over verges that the bird is virtually an emblem of the road network.
And, just to complete the happy picture, many counties managing minor roads have been running protected verge schemes. These roadsides you can safely explore: many are sign-posted and contain rarities such as coralroot bittercress (West Sussex), Spanish catchfly (Cambs), lady orchid (Kent) and bastard toadflax (Lincs).
AT THE ROADSIDE
1 Yellow rattle (rhinanthus)
2 Muntjac deer
3 Wolf spider
4 Common blue butterfly
5 Ox-eye daisies
7 Pyramidal orchid
9 Bee orchid
11 Field poppy
12 Red kite
13 Spotted orchid
14 Barn owl