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On The Verge Of Destruction: wildflowers threatened by poor roadside management

June 3rd, 2013

By Lorna Howarth

Lorna Howarth reports on how councils throughout Britain are accused of destroying vital wildlife habitat……

This is like putting Monsanto in charge of organic farming

At last we have emerged from a long cold spring into early summer. We certainly haven’t had the worst of the weather here in the south-west, but the fields, hedges and verges have been pinched, barren and brown for what seemed like forever. 

As March froze into April, I often wondered what the blackbirds and thrushes were living on as the hard earth yielded so little in the way of invertebrates. Along the A39, one of the main roads from Devon into Cornwall, what bothered me most with the verges laid bare, was the amount of plastic litter that had accumulated: silage wrap like startled crows caught in the hawthorn; plastic bottles blowing like tumbleweed along the windswept sward… 

I looked forward to the time when the sap would rise and cover this detritus, so it could no longer offend me – out of sight, out of mind – and eventually it did: first the alexanders, wild daffodils, primroses and violets and then the riot of wild garlic, red campion, bluebells and the spires of foxgloves standing tall.

And then they were gone – before they even had a chance to be pollinated and set seed, whole swathes of valuable habitat was shorn back to plastic and bare earth overnight. I was, and am incensed: hasn’t the district council heard about the plight of the bees and the decline in 60% of the UK’s wildlife? I tweeted in silent rage to my district council, but didn’t get a response. 

According to Plantlife, ‘the charity speaking up for the nation’s wild plants’ they get more calls on this subject than any other, from members of the public distraught and angry that cowslips and orchids are being mown-down in the name of neatness, good management and road safety. According to Plantlife there is approximately 238,000 hectares of roadside verge habitat, but only 85,000 hectares of flower-rich grassland left in the UK. In Devon and Cornwall alone, along the A30 and A38 there is over 1,000 hectares of valuable wild-flower verge-side habitat with one junction home to six orchid species, including bee orchids and 1,100 greater butterfly orchids. 

The area of lowland meadow in England and Wales declined by 97% between the 1930s and 1984 devastating the habitat of some of our rarest species of flowers and insects, rendering roadside verges an incredibly valuable repository of biodiversity, containing some of the country’s largest populations of pyramidal orchids, the rare bastard balm and long-leaved helleborine which are among 33 wayside flowers faced with extinction, as well as the largest population of rockrose which attracts the scarce brown argus butterfly. 

As if to confirm the public’s concern about this gratuitous destruction of precious habitat, the RSPB has just published a Report called The State of Nature which states that 60% of the 3,148 species surveyed have declined over the past 50 years, and 31% have ‘declined strongly’. Dr Mark Eaton, a lead author of the Report said, “We are losing wildlife at an alarming rate. Once common species such as the lesser spotted woodpecker, barbastelle bat and hedgehog are vanishing before our eyes”.

What came across clearly from this ground-breaking Report is the importance of protecting valuable habitat: “the threats to the UK’s wildlife are many and varied, the most severe acting either to destroy valuable habitat or degrade the quality and value of what remains.” So, ensuring that our councils rethink their over-zealous practice of mowing roadside verges is key to redressing this loss of habitat. 

I decided to look a little further into the matter. Arguments have been made in favour of mowing for reasons of pedestrian and driver safety issues. Scottish Natural Heritage’s report on ‘The Management of Roadside Verges for Biodiversity’ indicates that roadside verges are designed “to facilitate emergency stopping” and “provide a refuge or route to pedestrians, and this requires that any trip hazards - e.g. drains, inspection covers - are visible”. They go on to note that “most verges are designed to allow motorists to see as much of the road, or roads as possible - both in front and behind. This function or requirement has a significant influence on management regimes”. 

This being said, however, Dorset County Council’s ‘Natural Environment Team Guidance Sheet’ claims that “There is evidence in the UK and abroad that suggests that increasing forward visibility may encourage traffic to speed up. Increased speed can result in more accidents”. Further to this, claims that 0.4% of all road traffic accidents in the UK are caused by a driver’s vision being affected by “vegetation” though no explanation of what ‘vegetation’ constitutes is offered. It seems therefore that not only can verge-mowing increase the possibility of accidents, but that only 0.4% of accidents that do happen are attributed to driver visibility being affected by vegetation. It seems a huge price to pay in terms of loss of habitat and wildlife to prevent accidents, when in fact quite the opposite outcome is more likely. 

Aside from the above findings, I could glean no correlation between grass length, verge cultivation and road traffic accidents. I did find one instance of a roadside verge being an integral part of a legal case taken up against West Sussex County Council, in which the “judge had been entitled to find that a highway authority was in breach of its duty of care under the Highways Act 1980 s.41(1) to a driver who had lost control of her car after driving on to the verge of a road which had not been properly maintained” ( However, the reason that the driver ended up on the verge was because of her negligence in driving too fast for the conditions. 

According to Plantlife, the following councils are working to protect their roadside verges: Bracknell Forest, Warrington, Bath and North East Somerset, Derbyshire County, Exeter, and South Gloucestershire. When I contacted my district council to find out what their policy on verge mowing is, they told me they had nothing to do with the cutting and mowing of roadside verges and suggested I contact the county council. I had high hopes on contacting Exeter council as they are one on the list who are supposedly working to protect verges.

Rather than being able to speak to someone on the matter however, I was only able to obtain a copy of their PDF policy document. This stated amongst other things that “the timing of the cuts [. . .] should take account of local flowering and seed climax”. This is certainly not the case in North Devon where the verges were mown down in mid-May just as they were coming into full flower; that “operatives are encouraged to use their initiative in avoiding the destruction of fine stands of wild flowers”. In my experience, this is like putting Monsanto in charge of organic farming. 

A couple of years ago, I was riding my electric Powerbyke out towards the beautifully-named village of Woolfardisworthy. I stopped in awe at the sight of a large, heavenly-blue stand of scabious. I never did work out whether it was ‘sheep’s-bit’ or devil’s-bit’ scabious, but no matter – because the very next day, the council dumped a load of chippings right on top of them. To add insult to injury, there was a big lay-by, just yards away. So, our council’s statement that “The need for delay after flowering until seeds are set is impressed upon supervisors and operatives,” has obviously fallen upon deaf ears. 

Finally, “Devon County Council requires its contractor to remove litter from areas of verge and visibility splays during grass cutting operations.” Somehow, I don’t think that allowing the plastic to pass through the blades of the mower and being chopped up into little pieces really constitutes the removal of litter, even if it’s a little less visible. 

If, like me, you are devastated every year by your council’s abject failure to protect the precious habitat of roadside verges, then please participate in Plantlife’s Road Verges Campaign. You can upload ‘Before’ and ‘After’ photos of verge habitats that are destroyed, rate your council’s practices, sign their petition and get involved in lots of other ways too.  

 Lorna Howarth is a writer and environmentalist. She is a contributing editor to Resurgence & Ecologist magazine and the founder of a small independent publishing agency:

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