New national guidelines recently released underline the huge benefits of road verges being cut less and later for wildflowers and the wildlife they underpin.

The Plantlife-led guidelines endorsed by highways agencies, industry and wildlife organisations provide a roadmap to fundamentally transform how 313,500 miles of UK road verges are managed.

Many verges are currently cut at least four times a year but the guidelines recommend a two-cut management programme that allows flowers to complete their full lifecycle rather than being cut down in their prime before they are able to set seed. The less and later two-cut approach endorsed by these guidelines would replenish the seed bank, restore floral diversity, save councils money and provide pollinator habitat estimated to equal the size of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff AND Edinburgh combined.

Fresh approaches to road verge management are essential considering there has been a 20% drop in floral diversity on road verges since 1990, partly due to poor or inappropriate management. Red clover and lady's bedstraw, two of the six verge wildflowers that support the highest number of invertebrates - are amongst the plants experiencing the most rapid decline with adverse knock-on effects for wildlife. The marsh fritillary butterfly feeds almost exclusively on devil's-bit scabious, so lives or dies according to the prospects of its food plant.

fritillary butterfly

Given a staggering 97% of wildflower meadows have been eradicated in less than a century, grassland road verges are crucial wildlife habitats: they provide a safe haven for over 700 species of wildflowers, nearly 45% of our total flora, including 29 of 52 species of wild orchid including rarities such as lizard orchid.

Central to the guidelines is a clarion call for verges to be cut less and later each year. The report states: “Today, the majority of the UK’s grass road verges are either cut too frequently and at the wrong time, or abandoned to scrub … 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.”

The guidelines recommend that ‘cut and collect’ methods are employed wherever possible. The removal of verge cuttings – or arisings - for alternative use can reap rich rewards for biodiversity; allowing cuttings to rot on the verge ‘enriches’ soils with nitrates and phosphate allowing competitive, ‘thuggish’ species like cow parsley and nettles to outmuscle more delicate wildflowers like harebells that require less fertile, open terrains to flourish.

Progressive councils across the UK are working alongside Plantlife, Wildlife Trusts, Butterfly Conservation and other partners to transform the way they manage verges.

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