Rare species fight back on Britain's M-way verges


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).


1 Yellow rattle (rhinanthus)

2 Muntjac deer

3 Wolf spider

4 Common blue butterfly

5 Ox-eye daisies

6 Dormouse

7 Pyramidal orchid

8 Fox

9 Bee orchid

10 Badger

11 Field poppy

12 Red kite

13 Spotted orchid

14 Barn owl

15 Hedgehog

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own