There is a great wilderness right under our hubcaps. Roadside verges cover a huge area of green land in Britain, which, if it were a national park, would be the largest in the country. And this newspaper argues that roadside and railway verges should be treated as if they were indeed a national park, so that they are rightly valued as a wildflower and wildlife reserve.
As we report today, the Plantlife charity is campaigning to persuade local councils and the Highways Agency to be less diligent in mowing and strimming verges. The Independent on Sunday gives this cause its wholehearted support. Of course, it is not quite as simple as discouraging public servants simply from doing things; it is more a matter of timing. If verges were treated as hay meadows and allowed to flower and set seed before being cut, they could be havens of biodiversity, instead of the wastelands of short grass or tall nettles and cow parsley that are too common today.
Equally, we recognise that many local councils and parts of the Highways Agency do much good work to promote wild flowers already. New road schemes, in particular, are often planted imaginatively with wild grasses and flowers, presumably because someone has given the matter some thought. But the same thought could be applied more often to existing verges. It takes only the slightest bit of intelligent human management, or well timed non-management, to allow nature to take its own course. And, as anyone who has seen birds of prey hovering over motorway verges will know, a surprising wildness can co-exist with the fumes and speeding metal of the road network.
With the conversion of large expanses of arable farmland to monocultures of oilseed rape, wheat, or kale, roadside verges are more important than ever as reserves of ancient plants and animals, or simply in providing variety. One of the reasons that this newspaper has been sceptical about genetically modified plants is the threat that they represent to biodiversity, which is bound to be a growing concern as the planet becomes more crowded by the human monoculture.
What is more, not only do wild flowers look better than the brown grass or fast-growing weeds produced by over-mowing, but they are usually less of a hazard to drivers. Less well-informed local councils are worried about lack of visibility for drivers. Yet, as Plantlife points out, most natural wild flora grows no higher than a foot and so does not need constant cutting.
Turning our roadsides into a national park of wildflower meadows would have other advantages. It could help the revival of food foraging, which is being promoted by chefs such as the two-Michelin-starred Simon Rogan, founder of L'Enclume restaurant, and Gary Goldie, named Scottish Chef of the Year in 2011. There is no reason why more of our roadsides should not provide us with wild strawberries, sorrel and elderflowers, as well as our more commonly harvested blackberries.
If we expended a fraction of the political energy that was devoted to opposing the sell-off of the nation's forests to protecting the less obvious part of our natural heritage, so much the better. Our newest national park, the South Downs, was designated only three years ago, but let us treat the connected wildlife corridors of roadside and railway verges as a special kind of nature reserve, our notional 16th national park.
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