Islay’s ideal idea

Every once in a while you come across a project that stands out for its clarity and impact.  I had this experience recently when holidaying in Islay.  The project in question aims to make most of this beautiful island’s roadside verges a rich habitat for pollinators. 

Inspired by the work of Plantlife, who had been advocating the value of verges for pollinators, the team behind the Islay Natural History Trust set to work.  Linking up with supportive staff at Argyll & Bute Council, a plan was hatched to trial a change in verge cutting practices.

The idea was simple yet effective.  To leave verges to flower, and only cutting late in the season after the plants have set seed and finished flowering. It’s a strategy that is gathering momentum across local authorities and is a welcome development for our hard-pressed pollinating insects.

The Islay Natural History Trust teamed up with The Botanist Foundation and embarked on a two-year study of some of the less travelled routes on the Rhinns area of the island. Around 100 km of roadside verges were surveyed in 2017 and 2018. This allowed the Trust to assess the plant species they had and how pollinators were making use of them. They then persuaded the Council to adopt a new approach to verge management. 

If successful, the initiative will create a range of benefits – the floral diversity will be improved, pollinators will have more food, grass will no longer dominate verges, and there will be savings in verge management.

The group is mindful of the details as well as ‘the big picture’, and particularly protective of verges that provide space for orchids around Port Wemyss and Portnahaven, for example. By relaxing mowing regimes, these orchids will flower, with discretionary and flexible verge cutting by volunteers to ensure road safety.

Portnahaven

Of course verges can vary, even across a single island. That’s why one area is subject to a trial seeding of Yellow Rattle to tackle grasses which largely created a major need for cutting in the first place and would ultimately subdue other plants. Yellow Rattle is an annual plant typically found in ancient meadows. Its roots latching onto those of surrounding grasses and pulling nutrients from their roots. For those concerned that Yellow Rattle might ‘run amok’, the group have stressed that sowing is only within the one metre strip that the council currently cuts. This small sub-project was set out to seed up to 4 km of verges around the of Loch Gorm and Gruinart area. The group will be able to observe what impact the introduction of ‘the meadow maker’ has.

By supressing dominant grasses, the height of verge growth should be lessened and this in turn reduces the need for mid-season cutting. The fuel saving will be a step down the road to reducing the carbon footprint associated with verge management.

Some footpath verges have also been transformed into pollinator-friendly routes

And of course when the grasses are suppressed, other plants move in. Chief amongst them from a pollinator perspective are clovers, yarrow, oxeye daisy, lesser knapweed and meadow vetchling. 

There is also something to be said also for the ‘transport corridor’ approach, which is gaining traction in the central belt.  Basically florally rich verges can act as route for pollinators to move through landscapes, and in an island not short on swathes of sheep-grazed pasture and barley filled fields, the verges can offer a lifeline.

That’s a fittingly optimistic note to end on. The work in Islay is an inspiration and could be a model to help pollinators across the country. Indeed, as you might often say on Scotland’s whisky island … “Cheers!”

Find out more about the Islay survey in their publication – The Islay Pollinator Initiative

Islay, isle of stunning beaches and increasingly impressive verges