A lasting legacy

It is estimated that there are over 300,000 miles of rural road verges in the United Kingdom. Around 700 species of wildflower grow on these verges, representing a whopping 45% of our total native flora.  What we needed was a guide to help us manage this remarkable resource to best advantage.

Plantlife’s ‘Managing Grassland Road Verges’ has delivered just that. Widely welcomed with open arms by botanists, entomologists and environmentalists this profoundly sensible route map won the prestigious Best Practice and Knowledge Sharing award at the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM).

The CIEEM award recognises the outstanding expertise within Plantlife and is set to be a boon for practitioners and nature.

On the surface this well-designed, and easy to navigate, booklet offers practical guidance for road managers, highway engineers, and landscape architects in the management of lowland and upland grassland verges. But it isn’t long before the reader realises that within the covers lies a treasure trove of insight and information.

Amongst the myriad of eye-catching facts in this booklet there is one which perhaps merits the most positive attention.  In managing our verges in a way which is wildlife-friendly we can create a habitat which would equate to the area of London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Manchester and Birmingham combined.

The multi-functional benefits verges can offer for nature and people are now well recognised. The list includes contributing to improved air quality, carbon sequestration, biodiversity enhancement, pollinator corridors, and better water management.  With the current emergencies around climate change and biodiversity loss uppermost in our minds that’s an impressive list of contributions in anyone’s book.

Some would suggest that a pandemic induced look at our closest surroundings has actually aided this greater appreciation of what well-managed verges can mean for our future.

And, here’s the rub, it’s not difficult to do the right thing.

Currently there are a number of traps we can fall into.  We cut our verges too often, we cut them at the wrong time of year, and the cuttings are left to create a thick thatch which suppresses the next generation of flowering plants. That trio of ‘sins’ in turn increases management costs, and misses an opportunity to help biodiversity, thus a golden opportunity slips through our fingers.

The guide emphasises how we can turn that ship around and steer a better course.  It plots a route to create a network of species-rich verges, resplendent with native wildflowers and carrying the ability to support much more wildlife, particularly pollinators, in ecologically richer networks.

In NatureScot we take particular delight in Plantlife’s richly deserved accolade. They have worked tirelessly to draw this subject into the public mainstream.  Reading the report and thinking about tireless work for grassland, we recall our colleague Jane MacKintosh, who championed grassland for decades, yet sadly passed away before she could see grassland on road verges move up the agenda.

It’s a particular delight to encounter a booklet that is so well sign-posted. The journey from assessing what is in a verge, how to best manage it, and crucially how to monitor its performance is covered in an easy to absorb fashion. The importance of key actions such as regular maintenance and sensitive timings are succinctly and compellingly made.  Timing of mowing is important and it is difficult to provide generic advice for the whole of the UK.  In Scotland alone the timing of cutting will vary a lot between Shetland and the Borders! 

There is a saying that the ‘devil is in the detail’ but in this volume the detail is welcome.  Topics as varied as leaving a patch of bare earth for nesting insects, incorporating floral variety, considering options for enhancing and restoring verges as well as creating afresh – these are subjects that fall under Plantlife’s searing spotlight.

For many of us the most compelling and uplifting section is the one focussing on ‘How to create species-rich grassland verges’.   The reader is presented with a logical step-by-step guide, the language is crystal clear, and there is an insight into what challenges to expect along the way. Problem plant species are tackled head on. The environmental path is seldom a straight line to sunlit uplands.

Politically there has been much talk in recent times about the need to ‘build back better’.  It’s a neat slogan, and in advocating a practical and better way to manage our verges Plantlife can rightly claim to be delivering that mantra, quite literally, on the ground.

Managing grassland road verges – a best practice guide can be found on the Plantlife website.