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Flowers on the Edge

How mismanaging our road verges is resulting in the loss of the UK’s wild flowers – and with them the pollinators and other wildlife that rely on them...

May 26 2013

A road verge in Dorset, late May...

A road verge in Dorset, late May...

Did you know that the A30 and A38 in Devon and Cornwall alone support 430 hectares or 4 square kilometres of flower rich grassland? Just one junction is home to six orchid species including bee orchids and a staggering 1,100 greater butterfly orchids.

Wayside flowers bring so much pleasure, colouring our towns and countryside and brightening up our daily commute. Yet, they’re under attack: flowers are being mown down in full bloom, sprayed off with poisons, or smothered with cuttings. Over time, only coarse thugs like thistles, docks and grasses can survive this onslaught. Plantlife is calling on councils to follow their new guidelines on how to better protect and manage road verges to give our native flora a chance.

‘It is almost ironic that the way we manage our road verges now encourages coarse and thuggish plants. Mown verges, smothered in cuttings might as well be just strips of green concrete.

...the same verge a few weeks later, after being mown.

...the same verge a few weeks later, after being mown.

Plantlife receives more calls on this subject than any other, from members of the public distraught and angry that their favourite verges full of cowslips and orchids are being mown down in the name of neatness and good management. But it doesn’t have to be this way – we want people to join the campaign, log on to the website and send us your “before” and “after” photos to help us lobby for change.’ says Plantlife’s Dr Trevor Dines

Meanwhile,Plantlife’s Andy Byfield believes with the right management as a matter of course, our road verges could be invaluable havens for wildlife: these ribbons of flowers would bring colour to the countryside, and would provide flyways for essential pollinators such as bees. Yet all too often members of the public tell us of verges cut at their flowering best”

The importance of road verges…

  • There are 238,000 hectares of road verge in Britain, that’s twice as much grassland than is left in the countryside – it’s a vital natural habitat and we need to look after it.
  • Road verges and hedgerows are home to over 1000 species. They support two thirds of all our wild flowers!
  • 33 wayside flowers are threatened with extinction, including Spiked Rampion, Crested Cow-Wheat and Bastard Balm, Long-Leaved Helleborine and Tower Mustard.
  • With the loss of our natural meadows, wildflowers on road verges play a vital role as a food source for pollinators; six species of bumblebee have declined by 80% in the last 50 years, with 71% of butterflies also declining.
  • If flowers are left to set seed, this is not only good for their survival but also provides a valuable food source for birds and small mammals.
  • Healthy road verges offer the best wildlife corridors, allowing both plants and animals to survive in an intensively managed landscape.

What’s the threat?

Road verges need management, BUT councils are mowing verges in their care at the height of the flowering season, too often and leaving the cuttings to lie. A Plantlife survey revealed that more than 75% of the councils contacted cut their verges multiple times over the spring and summer, with not one of them collecting cuttings as part of their routine management.

What’s the result?

Flowers are being cut before they can set seed and energy returned to the rootstock, and then smothered by the cuttings which, as they rot down, add nutrients to the soil - just like applying compost to the garden. Unfortunately, most wild flowers thrive on poor soil. Only species like nettles, docks and coarse grasses benefit from this type of management.

What’s the solution?

We need to manage these ribbons of grassland just like we do our historic hay meadows, ideally cutting twice (with cuts very early in the year and in late summer), but avoiding the key growing, flowering and seeding period (roughly four months for many species). Ideally arisings should be removed, if possible.

To find out more about the campaign, hear what our celebrity supporters think, or talk to an expert, please contact: Justina Simpson on 07833 700 177 or by email.