Friday, 28 July 2017

Managing roadside verges

In most recent years there have been aggrieved posts on the UK Hoverflies Facebook page lamenting the cutting of a favoured roadside verge or patch of hogweed. Quite right too! Roadside verges are a fantastic nectar source for all manner of insects and in some parts of the country (such as much of Lincolnshire) are probably THE major wildlife resource. Loss of this resource in July or August might well have a significant impact on insect numbers and may contribute to the overall decline in wildlife that we have seen in recent decades. The issue is, however, a lot more complicated than at first might appear.

Let us start with the importance of roadside verges. In a landscape where fields are cultivated right up to the hedge line, verges provide the few bits of wild space and a lot of landscape connectivity. In some places, such as the areas around me in Stamford, they are immensely rich and display remarkable floristic diversity. Some are so rich that they have been designated SSSI in their own right. They definitely need protecting and conserving, but how do we do this efficiently?

I am fortunate to live in an area where there are great wide drove roads with wonderful wide flowery verges. But, droving has long since passed into history and unless some other form of management is implemented, there will be a change from open grassland to scrub. Mowing is the only realistic answer.

Unfortunately, mowing is expensive and requires organisation. The first concerns of those responsible will not be wildlife. Their concern is that sight-lines need to be maintained for road safety. They will want to minimise cost, so if sight lines are unimpeded then verges won't get cut. If they are impeded the critical issue is to get them cut. It does not matter what time of year that happens – it just needs to happen. So, if you have contractors that can do the job in July, then that is when you do it. Never mind that in doing so you remove all of the essential nectar sources for insects. Equally, if you can get hedges cut then cutting in October is of little consequence even if it removes food sources for birds!

We know the problem and I feel sure that many in wildlife organisations are perfectly aware of the issue. The big question is what can be done to change existing modus operandi? Well, maybe it is time to start to develop a register of important roadside verges; not just those with designations? Perhaps this is something that could be done by volunteers using a graduated scale? Then, perhaps there is scope for working with the Highways Agency and local authorities to change working practices? Perhaps too, there is a case for using agri-environment money to make the essential changes and perhaps also to make sure that all verges get cut completely at the right time of year, rather than being left to turn to scrub?

I see a really nice project in the making – one that might generate a great HLF bid to combine the power of volunteer recorders with the influence of initiatives to improve pollinator numbers. There is something for the Wildlife Trusts to ponder. It requires a lot of skills and needs to involve botanists, ornithologists and entomologists. It could be exciting and might just make a difference.


  1. A thought piece Roger. There might be some mileage here in identifying important verges, but it would be real challenge to organise and manage the register. The first challenge would be to create a validated grading system that would meet different needs of different wildlife. In my experience (healthcare) it is easier to create and validate a narrow focused scoring system, but then you end up with a large number of assessment tools and miss out on the 'joined up-thinking'. Then on the other hand a general assessment tool covering many bases sometimes end up too long and complicated and never gets used (I learnt the hard way as you you see). But I still like the idea you're proposing - all we now need is the policatal will among the local councils to at least test the options in a pilot maybe.

  2. My approach is to try to stimulate something - maybe crude in the first instance (a bit like Phase 1 survey) but once established it could be refined. The difficult bit is to get something happening and bang the drum enough to get things moving. On my own that won't happen, but perhaps somebody will see potential and go the next mile!