Mow grassy verges ‘less and later’ to help roadsides bloom, experts urge
A new approach could ‘end hard times on the soft estate’ and double the opportunities for wildflowers and wildlife in the countryside, Plantlife says.
Grassy verges should be cut “less and later”, according to guidelines to help transform hundreds of thousands of miles of roadsides into flower-rich strips.
Many verges are mown as much as four times a year, but highways authorities, contractors and community groups are being urged to reduce that to just two cuts that allows flowers to set seed rather than being cut down in their prime.
Reducing and delaying the mowing of verges delivers benefits for wildflowers and the wildlife, including important pollinators, that rely on them.
It also saves councils money, and can bring a “flash of nature” into the daily commute of millions of people, according to nature charity Plantlife.
The charity has produced the guidance in collaboration with Natural England, Highways England, Transport Scotland and the Welsh Government, industry bodies Skanska and Kier, and Butterfly Conservation and The Wildlife Trusts.
With 97% of wildflower meadows having vanished in the last century, the verges that line 313,500 miles of UK rural roads, A-roads and motorways are an increasingly important source of meadow habitat, Plantlife said.
Road verges are home to more than 700 species of wild flowers, including 29 of the 52 species of wild orchid found in this country such as the rare lizard orchid.
But the majority are cut too frequently and at the wrong time or abandoned to scrub, the guidance warns.
Grassy verges cover an area equal to all the remaining lowland grassland which is still rich in wildflowers, so a new approach could double the opportunities for wild flowers and wildlife, Dr Trevor Dines, from Plantlife said.
“Widespread adoption of this best practice management by councils and their contractors could transform our road verge network, signalling an end to hard times on the soft estate.”
He said that over time wildflowers had been hit by the loss of meadows on one side of the hedgerow in farmers’ fields.
“At the same time on the other side of the hedgerow on verges we’ve been slowly eradicating wildflowers, but cutting them so early and more often each year. We’ve eradicated flowers on both side of hedge.”
But where once people wanted to see neat and tidy verges, there was now a greater appetite for wild flowers, and “messier” grass strips that provide better cover for plants and the wildlife that feeds on them, he said.
This shift in public attitudes is reflected in Plantlife’s petition calling for councils to manage verges for wildflowers which has been signed by 82,000 people.
And it is backed up by research from the AA Charitable Trust which has revealed that 84% of 18,000 drivers quizzed would like to see more verges become roadside meadows as long as it does not impede road visibility.
Edmund King, director of the AA Charitable Trust, said verges could be a haven for native plants and wildlife, and added: “At times driving can be boring leading to a lack of concentration, so if a splash of colour and a whiff of scent alerts the senses, it must also be a good thing for road safety.”
Dr Dines said it could offer hope to rare flowers such as wood calamint and fen ragwort that are only found on roadsides and mean people see more familiar flowers including cowslips, oxeye daisies, and even orchids on their journeys.
“It’s heartening to see road verges increasingly recognised as wildlife havens, rather than the inconsequential ‘edgelands’ that flash by in the car wing mirror as we speed ahead with our busy lives,” he said.
The guidelines say cutting the verges twice a year, and doing so later into the autumn helps suppress coarse grasses and encourages wildflowers, which are able to grow, produce beautiful displays and set seed before being cut.
They also encourage taking away the cuttings to remove excess nutrients that would boost grass at the expense of flowers, pointing to the opportunities for using the material for biomass to produce energy.
And there is advice on restoring verges, managing scrub, and establishing flower-rich grasslands along new roads.