Most weekends I motor through West Sussex to the sea. But this month something will be missing. I shall not see the lady's smock which have always popped their pinkish heads above the grass beside the A29 in late April. Some hoodlum with a strimmer, presumably acting on council or Highways Agency orders, cut them down as they flowered two years ago, and they have not reappeared since.
Nor will Hampshire folk be able to see in some profusion the white flowers of the rare narrow-leaved helleborine as they bloomed on a roadside in the Meon Valley. And no Northumbrian will know what it is to see growing freely on their verges, as they once did, the field scabious, agrimony, yellow rattle, water avens, and cranesbills. All removed by the mowing jobsworths. And eradicated, too, as if they were some dangerous interloper indicating the authorities were not fully in control hereabouts, are the purple orchids which grew beside the A35 in Dorset; the coralroot orchids, and lady's smock which brought variety and insects to the edge of roads in Wadhurst, East Sussex; the common spotted orchids and round-fruited rush that found sanctuary by roads in Ashleworth, Gloucestershire; the nine species of orchids killed by herbicide sprayers infecting the A38 near Chudleigh, Devon; and much, much more. All gone.
And gone, too, the garlic mustard, white dead-nettle, and, later, the crown vetch which had the temerity to flower among the rough grass opposite my suburban railway station. Or, rather, did, until the man with the strimmer, headphones, and goggles cut them down in their petalled prime last summer. All gone, and no doubt many others I am unaware of. And, what's more, smashed down or chemically withered in our unwitting name by contractors or the employees of public bodies for no greater reason than ignorance, or because they can. Thus is our money used to demean, reduce, and pauperise the wildlife of our public spaces.
Nor is such officialdom alone. Water companies and others also feel the need to regard every bit of unhewn grassland as something offensive to be summarily dealt with. And many churches bring all the subtlety of a 1970s council parks department to their cemeteries – mowing, trimming, and fussing away the feral plants and insects. They do not seem to realise that, beside wildlife, habitat, and naturalness, they are banishing too the comforting sense that, among death, there can, if left alone, be a resurgence of life, however small and contemptible it is to the clerical eye. And all done, I suspect – whatever the unconvincing official excuse – not just out of control freakery but of a need to stamp monthly ownership on that which should be largely left to its own natural devices.
Excessive tidiness is truly one of the great scourges of our countryside. And the greatest damage it does is not to our pleasure – the removal of some visual amenity – but to the flowers and the insects that live on and among them, and are part of a food chain. Break it, and species leave or die. Break enough of it, and numbers decline. And we wonder why there are fewer bees and butterflies. Strim the lady's smock, and there will be fewer orange-tip butterflies. It is as simple as that.
Some years ago, I visited Switzerland to see the Alpine flower meadows. My base was Brig, a railway town of, by Swiss standards, only intermittent loveliness. One morning I walked in a new direction and found myself among apartment blocks. Between them was a football-field sized swathe of grassland filled with wild flowers. How so? Because the Swiss treat such areas, as many Continental countries do, as an old hay meadow. It is cut only when the flowers have set seed. Why can't we forego our obsessive tidiness and do the same?