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

Things can only get better

The infrastructure in and around our built environment can help society tackle issues as crucial as biodiversity loss and climate change.  Raingardens are an enlightened infrastructure solution offering multiple benefits.  The good news is that Scotland has shown a keen interest in the concept of raingardens, as a standard method of dealing with surface water management, flood alleviation and greenspace creation.

It is probably safe to say that in Scotland we take a steer from successful projects based in Melbourne, Philadelphia and Portland, where there has been a growing acceptance of the value of raingardens as a viable answer to water management and environmental challenges.

The Kinross-shire Civic Trust Raingardens Challenge is an ambitious project which seeks to harness the potential of using greenspace wisely in our town and villages to create a bank of raingardens which are valuable landscape features whilst soaking up rainfall draining off roads, roofs and other impervious areas. 

Raingardens are certainly as desirable from a practical perspective as they are an aesthetic one. Incidences of flash flooding have increased alarmingly in recent years, and a deal of concern has been centred on the significant impact of the growth of hard landscaping approaches in domestic and industrial settings.

Raingardens are vegetated features designed to slow down and use rainwater. They use plants, soils and the landscape to hold onto the rainwater and then slowly release it. They also help reduce the amount of water which gets to the sewer. Some water is taken up by the plants, some rainwater finds its way back down into the ground, and some water will evaporate. Raingardens also help clean the water, which may have picked up dirt from the roofs and roads.

The objective of the Raingarden Challenge encompasses improvements such as adding wildflower and grassland areas along with more traditional planting with a wetland emphasis.  This multi-layered response is sensibly flexible to suit individual circumstances, but the consistent goal is the need to soften a built environment which at its most harsh can deliver a landscape often almost devoid of plants.  Sympathetically planted and naturally-sculpted landscapes can effectively absorb rainfall runoff, thus contributing notably to managing increasing flood risks.  When carefully designed, raingardens visibly help mitigate the potential impact of flash floods which are a disturbing reality as climate change bites home.

There is general acceptance now that the presence of planted areas assists the absorption of rainfall draining quickly from a hard-surface. Indeed a good example of this approach can be found in the Kinross area where wildflower swale has been installed at the edge of the link road in West Kinross. The consensus is that the impact is extremely positive.

The Kinross-shire Raingardens Challenge has an admirable sense of proportion and realism. They know they can’t deliver everything working in isolation. They are thus actively engaging with Perth and Kinross Council, local businesses, and individuals to see if they can encourage partners to consider installing raingardens or making modifications to their drainage systems which would deliver improved rainwater management. 

To this end they have invited business to get in touch with them if they suffer from a regularly flooded car park, for example, with a view to persuading the next solution to avoid simply going for a conventional reinstatement by exploring options to see if there is a viable raingarden solution.

Likewise if residents notice a road gully which is regularly failing, the group suggests communities contact their local councillors to probe the possibility of considering a raingarden instead.

Kinross-shire folks can certainly be persuasive. They recently worked with the famous Loch Leven’s Larder on an innovative way to transform the popular visitor attraction’s carpark into a series of small raingardens, and are actively working with the Kinross Estate (particularly the Green Hotel in Kinross) and others.  

Progress has been delayed by COVID, but agreements to pick up a.s.a.p. are encouraging. The Kinross-shire initiative is following a broad and inclusive definition of a raingarden: “ green infrastructure feature designed to accept rainfall runoff”.  Solutions are best when the features are linked to more optimal green features (grassland, hedgerows or woodland for example). Verdant verges can complement a roadside swale, especially if forming a gentle fringe to merge into the swale. In a recent survey some of the area’s local country road verges fell under the microscope. 

The results were interesting. In Carnbo (near Crook of Devon) 96 species were counted along a section of the Gelvan road, and over 70 species were logged near Westfield. In both examples water was able to run off tarmac into various verge types and several of the ditches examined were found to contain marsh species and tall grass species.

There is an admirable realism rooted in the Kinross-shire Raingardens project. The group are keen to acknowledge and celebrate good practice by participating businesses and households. Through a series of awards the intention is to convince more and more observers to see the value of going down this route. Nevertheless, not every green infrastructure project succeeds first time, or indeed every time, and this is acknowledged by a commitment to include ongoing managements and restoration of failed projects in their approach.

When the group issued a newsletter article recently they ran with the catchy headline of “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a raingarden”.  Based on their practical approach and sound vision they might need to dust down another upbeat song title– perhaps, the line from D:Reams ‘Things can only get better’ might appeal?

Further Reading:

Find out more from Brian D’Arcy via b.darcy@btinternet.com see NatureScot’s guidance on including green infrastructure solutions in the Planning and Construction sector 

And the joint WWT/RSPB publication on SuDS


Images courtesy and copyright of Brian D’Arcy