Whether a green speck in the concrete jungles of London, or a timeless stretch of nodding wildflowers on a rural Norfolk road, roadside verges are pretty much everywhere you go.
Combined, they cover over 300,000 miles of land, an area larger than Nottinghamshire. And if they were managed under Plantlife’s new roadside verge management guide, they could become vital veins of wildflower meadows, supporting over 700 species of plant. Even the way they’re currently managed, some plant species are endemic to our roadside verges, for instance Fenland Ragwort. If managed under Plantlife’s guide, verges would also become buffers to noise, air, and water pollution. Wind breaks. Carbon sinks slowing Climate Change. Shelter from the elements. Refuges for wildlife. Wildlife corridors, linking up isolated populations.
However, very few are currently like this. Due to ‘safety concerns”, and the uniquely British obsession of over-cutting our green spaces, most verges are boring monocultures, blurring past busy roads. This robs huge numbers of species of shelter, food, and resources. Habitats and populations that could be interconnected and joined up, creating healthy, resilient populations, are instead isolated islands, susceptible to extinction.
Of-course, cutting can sometimes be validated. Roundabouts and junctions for example must be cut short, so we can see the road clearly; public safety rightly coming first. But even in these situations, there’s so much leeway for areas to be managed in a more wildlife friendly way, with the only real reason councils aren’t doing it being safety concerns, litter entanglement and aesthetics.
While junctions etc need to be kept clear, C roads, most unclassified council roads and the huge network of rural verges can however largely be ‘let go’.
This doesn’t mean abandoned. If management stops, they’d simply be suffocated by nettles, vigorous grasses and scrub. Likewise, managed as intensively as they are currently, they might as well be replaced with AstroTurf.
Instead, Plantlife’s management guidelines (here: Managing_grassland_road_verges_Singles.pdf (plantlife.org.uk) ) should be adopted. What’s they propose, is that verges are still cut, just 1-3 times annually, instead of the 12+ times often in place currently, cutting verges even outside the growing season.
As well as cutting less, the cuttings would also be removed (which can simply be done with a rake and a bag) to prevent nutrient enrichment. This is a process where cuttings are left to decompose naturally, and release nutrients into the soil, fuelling nutrient-loving plants like Nettle, Cow Parsley, and Coarse grasses, which grow so rapidly they take up all the resources, suffocating everything else.
When cutting roadside verges, there are five main cutting times to pick from:
Image credit: Plantlife. (2021). Plantlife roadside verge cutting options (table) [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.plantlife.org.uk/application/files/3315/7063/5411/Managing_grassland_road_verges_Singles.pdf
To explain these:
One cut. If for whatever reason, a manager is unable to cut a verge more than once annually, it should be given a single full cut between August-September, to remove the year’s growth, before decomposing plants start to enrich the soil, with the cuttings then removed. If possible, scarifying the ground (bringing the vegetation back to near-bare ground) should also be done.
Summer + Autumn cut. Cut the majority of the verge (80-90%) between July-September. This mimic’s the management of Hay Meadows, open grasslands created for hay that typically boast huge amounts of biodiverse wildflowers. The 10-20% of the verge left uncut should then be cut between October-December, to remove any late Autumn growth. Again, remove the cuttings.
Late Winter + Autumn cut. Cut the verge fully during February-March before most species have begun growing, then give it another full cut during September-October. Remove all cuttings. This management option is ideal for late flowering species, such as Devil’s Bit Scabious, a beautiful species, its dark purple flowers can be spotted nodding on chalk grasslands in August and September.
Dry Soil + coastal verges. Coastal verges/verges with dry/sandy soils can be cut frequently between September-April, as the verge manager(s) wishes. This avoids cutting during the peak flowering/growing period of May-August, when it’s crucial plants are allowed to stay so pollinators can make the most of them. This option creates a short flower-rich sward, great for vetches, clovers, trefoils and other short wildflowers, and can even be seen on some junctions and roundabouts, where intensive cutting is usually the only management method chosen.
Species-rich roadside verge. If a verge is ‘species rich’ (I’ll explain what this means in a minute!) a popular management option is cutting a 1m strip around it, to create structural diversity, where shorter delicate plant species can thrive. Then, between February-March, the whole verge should be cut, and the cuttings removed.
To understand which of these methods to use though, the verge must first be categorized as either: species-rich, Amenity, or an Open/Aesthetic roadside verge, to ensure the right cutting time is picked.
Species rich. This is the gold standard of roadside verges, so unsurprisingly is also the rarest. Typically, it’s either very small, or/and is managed specially for wildlife, with many being nature reserves in their own right. This type of verge has 9< species per m2.
Open/Aesthetic Verge. Rural roads are typified by this verge type, which’s defined as having 9> species per m2; the flora generally being lower-lying species like Vetches.
Amenity Verge. Your typical urban verge. Intensively managed and often cut back monthly, with very few species, which’re mostly rye grasses (the type of grass you often seen on lawns and golf courses).
Once the verge type is established, the type of grassland comprising it (either Acidic, Calcareous or Neutral Grassland) must be identified. This can be done by looking at the species present on it, and matching it up to the helpful little key at the back of Plantlife’s management guide: Managing_grassland_road_verges_Singles.pdf (plantlife.org.uk).
If these guidelines were rolled out across the whole of Britain, hundreds of thousands of miles of road verges would be transformed into colourful corridors of wildflowers and invertebrates. There also wouldn’t be any economic burden of adopting them. Money would actually be saved as management would be so much lighter. For example, Dorset County Council saved a massive £350,000 after just five years!
There’s a range of management options to choose from, with practices such as framing and scarifying that can be done to ensure they’re practical options, as well as being valuable for wildlife.
Imagine if we could make this a reality? To see the long-forgotten butterfly clouds of the early 1900s back again. To see pre-1970s number of House Sparrows lining our roads once again, feeding off their plentiful invertebrates. If you want to make this happen, please sign Plantlife’s petition here: Road Verge Campaign (love-wildflowers.org.uk).
And don’t forget to get in touch with your local councils/MPs if you’d like to see these guidelines rolled out in your area. (I’ve put together a quick template email for you to use should you wish: Roadside Verge Email (template) (savethehousesparrow.com).
And most importantly, if you’ve not done so already, please take a moment to sign the petition I’ve made to my county council (Hampshire) urging them to adopt these guidelines across the county: Petition · Give Hampshire’s roadsides back to nature · Change.org
Stay tuned for more information, updates, and opportunities, and as always, thanks for reading! :)