There are almost 313,500 miles of roads running through the UK countryside, with grassland verges running most of their length. This habitat covers roughly the same area of land as our remaining lowland species rich grassland, representing a nationally significant resource to UK wildlife. The government are currently prioritising the establishment of such ecological networks to support the recovery of nature. When managed well, road verges can support astonishingly rich wildlife communities, with more pollinators than in the neighbouring countryside and nearly 45% of our national flora, made up of 700 wildflower species! With over 97% of the UK’s meadows destroyed since the 1930’s, road verges are now a vital refuge for pollinators and other wildlife.
What’s the problem?
Poor management and nutrient pollution have led to a 20% drop in floral diversity. At present, most of the UK’s grassland road verges are either left to scrub or are cut too frequently and at the wrong time. Cuttings are generally left behind, creating a thick thatch which inhibits growth and increases soil nutrient levels. This stimulates vigorous grasses and other nutrient-loving plants which dominate the roadside and prevent a more diverse plant community from establishing. This inappropriate management actually increases on-going management costs and has a negative impact on the safe functioning of highways. The majority of current management practices are focused on short-term safety considerations rather than the potential wider benefits.
What benefits could we expect from well-managed road verges?
“We need to manage our road verges as a nationally significant response to the decline of our wildlife, raising the management bar across the whole grassland estate not just on a few hundred miles of roadside nature reserve.”Plantlife, 2019
Such transformative action would be in keeping with government recommendations. It is necessary to create ‘more, bigger, better and joined up’ habitats, to make space for nature and for many more benefits, for example:
- Enhanced biodiversity
- Pollinator corridors
- Carbon sequestration
- Enhanced local character
- Improves bank stability
- Water and flood risk management
- Visual screening
- Noise and air pollution buffer
- Improved air quality
- Tourism gateway
- Reduce long-term management costs
Earlier this year Plantlife published their best practice guide for managing grassland road verges, an essential guide to help professionals manage road verges properly.
“Proper management of all verges would create a pollinator habitat the size of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff and Edinburgh combined”Plantlife, 2019
The guide advocates a different management approach. One that reduces management burden through reduced cutting frequency and less vigorous vegetation growth, increases the amount and diversity of flowering plants, fulfils a recommendation in the Government’s National Pollinator Strategy – and often leads to more sustainable long term operational costs and a reduced carbon footprint.
It is a practical guide for all professionals who are engaged with verge management and creation. It focuses on the management of lowland and upland grassland verges and covers aspects that are previously described in the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges wildflower handbook.