Shropshire Star

Turning road verges into wildflower meadows: Key questions answered

Local councils are increasingly managing grassy roadsides for the benefit of wildlife, a Freedom of Information request shows.

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Oxeye daisy and bird's-foot trefoil brighten the view of a roundabout

Around seven in 10 councils are making efforts to encourage wildflowers on road verges, according to a Freedom of Information request by the PA news agency.

Wildlife charity Plantlife says it has seen a significant change since 2013 when it started campaigning on the issue, so here are some key questions answered about the “meadows” springing up on the side of the road.

– What’s the best way to manage a road verge for wildflowers?

Simply put, it is about giving flowers the chance to set seed, by mowing less and later.

Plantlife’s guidance for authorities managing road verges says they should be cut once or ideally twice a year, with one cut as late as possible, around August or September, and another before Christmas or by the end of March.

Ideally the cut grass should be collected to take excess nutrients off and open up the soil surface for seeds to germinate.

An alternative approach involves cutting a 1-metre strip alongside the road in spring and leaving the rest of the verge to grow long, which can provide different habitats for wildlife. But the whole verge needs to be cut sometimes – ideally annually in autumn – to prevent all of it turning to scrub.

Early purple orchids on a road verge
Road verges are home to a huge range of flowers including orchids, such as this early purple orchid (Trevor Dines/Plantlife/PA)

– What are the benefits of more wildflower-friendly verges?

They support wildflowers including rare species, insects, and the wider web of wildlife such as birds and bats that feed on them.

One council, Central Bedfordshire, said it had found an aphid new to science on one of its roadside nature reserves, and that without an amended management regime, it is possible it would never have been discovered.

Using vehicles and machinery less to cut verges can save on carbon emissions, while councils who have made the move frequently said cost savings were part of the reason, and some highlighted that cutting less often could reduce road disruption.

– What are the problems?

Safety is a key issue, with councils needing to maintain sightlines for drivers and safe areas and crossings for pedestrians, so any regime needs to take that into account.

Some councils highlighted the costs of new equipment, such as machinery which collects the cut grass. Others said the longer meadow areas attracted litter or prompted some complaints from local people who prefer closely mown grass and think the new approach looks unkempt.

Wildflower-friendly verges can look good in spring too
Wildflower-friendly verges can look good in spring too (Matt Pitts/Plantlife/PA)

– Yes, don’t unmown areas just look messy?

Opinion is still divided on that front, but attitudes appear to be shifting. Plantlife’s Dr Trevor Dines said the discussion over rewilding had helped people think about letting nature come back.

And in some cases, a lack of mowing during the first lockdown last year as councils focused on their pandemic response allowed people to see how things can look if they’re less managed.

Some local authorities have changed their approach to managing verges because they have been asked to by residents who want to see more wildflowers, while many say they have seen a positive response.

Worcestershire County Council said it noticed public opinion was shifting, and from 2014 started receiving more complaints regarding the mowing of wildflowers and fewer regarding the tidy outlook.

Hartlepool Borough Council said it had received “many compliments” for its perennial and annual wildflower meadows on central reservations, while Huntingdonshire District Council said it was expanding floral meadow planting to more public spaces and grass verges as “we have never had such positive feedback from the public”.

Hackney Council in London said it had found a management strategy that overcomes people’s concerns about tidiness: “We found that if we put a one-metre strip around our plot areas, the community could see that it was still managed and sites were seen to be cared for and not left unkempt in some people’s eyes.”

Tufted vetch on a road verge
More people are appreciating wildflower road verges (Matt Pitts/Plantlife/PA)

– I’ve seen some beautiful displays of colourful flowers by the road – what are they?

Some of the most colourful displays of flowers are “pictorial meadows” which are sown annually, using often non-native seeds such as Californian poppies, to look good and provide food for pollinators.

Many botanists are critical of such displays, and although Dr Dines said they are likely to be better than what was there before, he said perennial native meadows are better for more insects and larvae such as caterpillars which feed off other parts of plants – and require less management.

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