Bill Shaw – Ecology and Conservation Land Management Adviser
I cycle to and from the National Park Office in Helmsley most days, and travelling slowly(!) over the ten mile stretch on minor roads it’s a joy to notice the roadside verges and how they change through the seasons. Early on it was the yellow primroses and cowslips that dominated, then there were glimpses of orchids poking through, and patches of tall purple comfrey. Next came the swaying ox eye daisies and the tangles of blue vetch and now it’s the turn of the creamy meadowsweet, deep purple knapweed and mauve meadow cranesbill.
Unfortunately what is sometimes also noticeable is how some of these verges are cut just when the flowers are in their prime. Roadside verges are sometimes cut for road safety issues, which is fair enough. But sometimes the cutting can seem random, and apparently for the sake of ‘tidiness’, which seems a real shame in the countryside.
Like all species rich grassland, management is required to prevent the habitat becoming rank and overgrown but the timing is crucial so flowers can bloom and seed before being cut down. Verges are important for wildlife, especially pollinating insects as long as plants are allowed to flower. Species rich road verges can be brilliant movement corridors linking up habitat that may otherwise be isolated (see our previous Connectivity programme posts).
The issue of verge management has been in the national press recently. A ‘National Pollinator Strategy’ from the Government is due out by November and this is expected to propose that councils only cut roadside verges when they have finished flowering. There is a current campaign highlighting detrimental verge management by local councils led by Plantlife. But it is worth remembering that not all road verges are managed by local councils.
Here in the North York Moors National Park we have been trying to ‘do our bit’ for verges for some years now. Following on from an original verge survey in 1985 by Margaret Atherden and Nan Sykes we currently have 181 verges in and around this National Park that have been identified as being ‘special’ for their diversity of plants. These verges are monitored each year by a team of keen volunteers (managed by PLACE) who keep an eye on key species and who can let us know if there are issues that need attention like salt heaps, invasive plant species, untimely cutting, lack of management etc. We also, where possible, negotiate specific cutting regimes on special verges managed by the local council or by individual parish councils when they have taken on the verge cutting.
One highlight this summer has been protecting an individual greater butterfly orchid from getting the chop. This was done very simply by putting a wooden peg either side of the plant and the local North Yorkshire County Council Highways Office alerting the sub-contractor to the pegs so he could just lift up the arm of the flail mower and avoid the plant. The orchid was left to look beautiful for the whole of its brief flowering and more importantly was allowed to seed. Hopefully in the future there will be more than one greater butterfly orchid at this location on the southern edge of the Park.
If you think you might be interested in becoming one of the keen verge monitoring volunteers, as mentioned above – please get in touch through email@example.com