The last few years have seen more and more councils recognising the value of cutting verges less frequently. The benefits include increased numbers of wild flowers, potential carbon footprint reduction and increased biodiversity across the board. In addition the majority of the public are seeing an increasing number of articles in local and national media and are coming to expect their local councils to contribute to biodiversity by not cutting grass verges as frequently. This is especially true as we lead up to COP26.
There are concerns of course. From a safety perspective it is essential that sight lines are maintained at junctions and on other blindspots. But environmentalists aren’t against that. In fact they support it as it provides an area of short vegetation where grasshoppers and other species can soak up the sun. And from a council’s point of view it makes it obvious that they verge is being cared for and not being left to get overgrown.
There are also a decreasing minority of people that object to minimal cutting of verges on the basis that they are untidy. This might be partially due to the plethora of media coverage, which is overwhelming the objectors, as more and more members of the public understand the benefits of infrequent verge cutting.
We shouldn’t however dismiss those that challenge the green verges concept. They are entitled to their point of view as much as anyone else. Rather than the two groups becoming entrenched without discussion we need to talk to one another and listen to each others perspectives and worries. Those that prefer tidy verges have different values to those that want more wildflowers but neither should be labelled as eccentric or stupid. They aren’t. The answer will lie in compromise with some areas being managed to encourage biodiversity and some being mown for safety or aesthetic reasons.
Attitudes at Highways England are also changing and it’s encouraging changes in the type of plants that thrive on verges with decreased mowing. A Low Nutrient Grasslands policy is being implemented that will favour wild flowers as opposed to aggressive grass species that need cutting so frequently. This policy isn’t optional, HE are instructing this on a scheme by scheme basis via their Major Projects, Project Control Framework (PCF).
The benefits of reduced fertility and less frequent cutting are many. I’ve already mentioned increased biodiversity, but the following are also apparent.
- Increased safety due to decreased verge cutting requiring fewer maintenance visits
- Carbon footprint reduction due to fewer visits and less cutting
- Long term reduction in maintenance due to species change
- Increased numbers of pollinators.
Improvements at Bowd
Until recently the verges at Bowd, Sidmouth, (-3.264537, 50.701777), were cut on a very frequent basis. The verge grew vigorously and a number of aggressive species dominated. Soil nutrient levels were relatively high and hence aggressive species were encouraged.
In 2021 the frequency of cutting has been reduced to a recommended twice a year as per Plantlife’s recommendation. Sight lines have, of course, been cut more frequently as safety must always be a prime consideration.
A management plan is being developed which will see cutting taking place in March and again in late September to October. This will encourage plants to flower and drop their seed before cutting. The grass cuttings (risings) will preferably be removed in the long term, but for now may well be collected and heaped in a few piles. This will reduce fertility and improve the range of varieties.
In the short time since the less frequent cutting regime has been in place at Bowd there have been dramatic changes in the site’s biodiversity. Whereas before the number of flowering plant species was in single figures, with many of them being cut before they could flower, the numbers have dramatically risen.
In addition several butterfly species are now commonly seen. As are several moth species, two species of grasshopper, numerous grasses plus signs of mammals.
Identification of species has been carried out by local experts, supported by specialists. In most cases species are recorded on iNaturalist and similar online software systems where they contribute to local, county, regional and national planning.
Flowering plants are being monitored for a full year at Bowd and the location of many can be seen on the above screen grab. To date, (September 28th 2021) 89 species of flowering herbaceous plants have been recorded as in flower. This excludes grasses of which there are many species and doesn’t include non flowering species. It’s possible that a few more flowering herbaceous species might be added before year end.
The most common species noted include dandelions which are valuable for early flying pollinators; plantains, clover, yarrow etc. The species that surprised many of us was an orchid, Broad Leafed Hellerborine (Epipactis helleborine), which is normally considered to be a woodland plant. Several plants of this spectacular tall orchid were found in August and September and demonstrates how important it is to cut the vegetation late in the year.
The presence of such a wide variety of plants, after aggressive mowing for many years, is due to many factors. Some will have undoubtedly blown in as seed or will have been carried in by wildlife as varied as birds and mammals. Others will have persisted in the areas previously left uncut. There will also have been a good number of seeds in the soil seedbank. This is where seeds, some of which can persist for 50+ years, sit in the soil waiting for the right conditions after being “absent”: for many years. Poppies are renown for this but sadly some species are much less persistent and last just a few years.
Contributors to the regeneration of plants via the seedbank include moles and small mammals which bring fresh soil to the surface. Moles are particularly noticeable at Bowd and leave molehills which are likely to contain seed that has lain dormant for years, plus the newly exposed soil is ideal as a nursery bed for seed that is brought in from elsewhere.
Seeding Policy at Bowd
Our policy at Bowd has been to let natural regeneration to take place. The only species of herbaceous plant added has been Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor). Known as the meadow maker, Yellow Rattle is a hemi-parsitic species that parasitises grasses. Once established it can reduce grass growth by up to 60%. This gives flowering plants the opportunity to flourish.
Yellow Rattle is hard to establish in the early years and in this first year we only had a handful of plants establish. However, those that did grow have now shed their seed and are likely to be more prolific next year. Plus, we are adding more seed this year. The seed being used was hand collected by volunteers and comes from a local site, so it should be well suited to local conditions.
Butterflies at Bowd
Our butterflies expert was surprised to see so many butterflies at Bowd. In just 15 minutes he counted 3 Gate Keepers, 8 Common Blues, 3 Meadow Browns, 1 Large Skipper and 1 Large White.
On other occasions Peacocks, Red Admirals and a Tortoiseshell have also been seen.
Grasshoppers at Bowd
Both field grasshoppers and the meadow grasshoppers have been identified at Bowd and have been very abundant. They provide food for birds, beetles, mice, snakes and spiders. The short grass, mown to maintain sight lines, are ideal for the grasshoppers. They tend to sunbathe on the short grass at the edges of the site and hop into the long grass when disturbed.
Trees at Bowd
Some established trees are growing at the Bowd site and we recognise the importance of managing these in conjunction with the grasses and other flowering plants.
Care needs to be taken to ensure the trees do not damage the road surface with their roots or be able to fall across the road due to storm damage. However, they are important in giving a broader range of species and habitats.
Some suckering of tree growth is apparent and this will be controlled by the late autumn cut each year. Managed correctly suckering can be used to ensure a level of tree cover is maintained with a succession of trees being available as the older ones succumb to age.
The fallen timber at Bowd is a valuable habit for beetles and many other species and has been left in situ to date. It does encourage brambles and other rank growth but is easy to undercut every few years, so as to ensure it doesn’t become dominant.
The Future of Green Verges
The trend is now firmly towards greening the environment with more and more people wanting to see nature restored where possible.
In recent months this has seen an increasing number of people coming forward to help maintain verges. They understand the necessity of removing the arisings from the site and come, with rake and fork, to help clear the arisings. As we come out of lockdowns the need to engage in safe outdoor activities has been an important factor and has contributed to improved mental health in numerous cases.
Long term however it is likely that we will see more verges being cut by specialised equipment that will cut the vegetation in the same way as grass is cut for hay, rather than mulched by traditional flail and rotary type mowers. This will make raking and removing the arisings far easier.
We are also likely to see more contractors investing in machinery that will cut and remove the grass arisings in one pass, with the green material being used in anaerobic digesters to create green energy. Another alternative is to cut and bale the grass. There is a value in this type of hay to help spread wildflower seeds to other sites.
Whether the verges are cut managed manually, or with specialist machinery, what is certain is that we are likely to see more verges managed in this way. A more colourful, biodiverse future is on the horizon in many areas.