Plantlife’s wildflower road verges campaign has been gaining traction. Under their new guidelines for road verges, councils and highway authorities are encouraged to ‘cut less and cut later’.
Over 700 species of wildflower grow on the UK’s road verges – nearly 45% of our total flora, including 29 of 52 species of wild orchid. In some cases, road verges are a last remaining refuge for various types of bees, butterflies, birds, bats and bugs. Roadside verges are becoming important “wildlife corridors”, helping with the movement of plants and insects across an increasingly fragmented countryside. However, there has been a 20% decrease in floral diversity on road verges since 1990, in part due to excessive cutting and mowing.
Plantlife's vision for Britain's 313,500 miles of road verges is simple: cutting road verges less, and later in the year, as well as using yellow rattle plant to act as a natural lawnmower.
The new Plantlife national guidelines emphasise the benefits of road verges being cut less and later for wildflowers and the wildlife they underpin. These guidelines are endorsed by highways agencies, industry and wildlife organisations.
Many verges are currently cut at least four times a year, but the guidelines recommend a two-cut management programme, that allows flowers to complete their full lifecycle rather than being cut before they are able to set seed. This new approach would enable floral diversity, save councils money, and provide pollinator habitat estimated to be equal the size of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff and Edinburgh combined.
Red clover and lady's bedstraw, some of the wildflowers that support the highest number of invertebrates - are amongst the plants experiencing the fastest decline. The marsh fritillary butterfly feeds almost exclusively on devil's-bit scabious, another verge plant.
Plantlife’s new guidance for highway authorities has been produced in collaboration with Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, Highways England, Transport Scotland and Welsh Government, as well as industry bodies Skanska and Kier, and wildlife organisations Butterfly Conservation and The Wildlife Trusts.
The report states “We need to manage our road verges as a nationally significant response to the decline of our wildlife.”
Dr Trevor Dines, Plantlife Botanical Specialist and an architect of Plantlife’s public campaign, said:
“publishing these new guidelines endorsed by so many influential players is an exciting step forward...Grassy verges cover an area equivalent to all our remaining lowland species-rich grassland...Where once there was a desire to see verges scalped to the bone for that neat-and-tidy look, there’s an increasing appetite for ‘messier’ verges that provide better cover and food for wildlife”
He continued: “the shift in public attitudes - reflected in the huge support for the Plantlife petition - means we could see more familiar flowers like cowslip, oxeye daisy, knapweed, tufted vetch and even orchids on our journeys.
“For the 23 million people who commute to work by road, the verge can be their only daily contact with."
Phil Sterling, a programme manager at Butterfly Conservation, said:
“The new guidance provides practical, realistic and affordable examples of how to turn road verges into wildlife corridors... The guidance also shows it can cost us less to do exactly that.”
Clare Warburton, the principal green infrastructure adviser for Natural England, welcomed the “cost-effective, practical solutions” in the new guidance.
Councils across the UK are working alongside Plantlife, Wildlife Trusts, Butterfly Conservation and other partners to transform the way they manage verges.
Plantlife’s dedicated Road Verge Manager Kate Petty is supporting councils such as Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Herefordshire and Wrexham.
Plantlife research estimates that if all of the road verges in the United Kingdom were managed for nature there would be 418.88 billion more flowers or 6,300 per person in the UK.
Over 24,600 people have signed Plantlife's petition for councils to adopt the guidance.
Those councils that have already taken the guidance on board have seen strong floral and financial results. Dorset Council estimates they have saved over £100,000 through, among other things, fewer road verge cuts since 2014.