A fine April morning and nature seems pregnant with possibilities. Along the lanes close to where I live the oak and ash trees are still winter bare, branches stark and darkly silhouetted against spring bright skies. Roadside hedgerows shine with constellations of white star flowers illuminating dark, thorny, but still leafless, blackthorn depths, sycamore buds unfurl as delicate, translucent, green hands, and charcoal-black ash buds are swelling. Bird song and wildflowers, spring would not be spring without them, and both are in evidence as I walk familiar verges now brightened with the golds of primrose and celandine, sky-blue speedwells and the unassuming greenish-yellow flowers of dog’s mercury.
This is the time of year I make my annual resolution to learn my wildflowers. Of course now it’s easy, the list of what’s in flower is comparatively small. Red dead nettle is in profusion on road verges, forming magenta patches along the lanes. Everyone knows dandelions and daisies, and though both can be spotted in flower in throughout the winter, their flowers are now abundant. They do say spring hasn’t properly arrived until you can cover seven daisy flowers with a single foot-print: well by my count spring is clearly here. More hidden are the flowers of other arable weeds, escaped from the fields onto my local road verges. The diminutive white flowers of hairy bittercress, dull yellows of groundsel, white stars of common chickweed and mauve-blues of ground ivy are easy enough to spot if you stop, bend and look a bit more closely among the grass.
My local patch of Norfolk also has some wonderful, shady sunken lanes to walk along. The banks here are festooned with literally hundreds of primroses and looking more closely amongst them I can find the black spotted leaves of early purple orchid and, already in flower, delicate white petals of barren strawberry and dog and sweet violet in hues of both purple and white . Woodland escapees on these shady roadside banks include the first red campions in flower, dog’s mercury, dog violets and the extraordinary cowled leaves of lords and ladies. And in damp, shady, hollows lane-side ditches are brightened with the gold of kingcups and white globes of wild garlic in flower, gleaming pure and bright above sword-shaped, pungent green leaves.
Late April and early May will bring many more species into flower along our verges. Look out for greater stitchwort, lacy-white cow parsley, and one of my favourites, growing on just a few local verges, the meadow saxifrage. I must dig out my wild flower guide and remind myself of how to distinguish creeping buttercup from bulbous and meadow buttercups and take on the annual challenge of speedwells: now is that one germander, field, slender, wall or ivy-leaved?
Few wildflower meadows remain in Norfolk but we probably all have a roadside verge close to where we live and these can be a haven for wildflowers. And where there are flowers there will be butterflies and bees to spot. In the longer grass small mammals such as shrews and voles can thrive and their predators, barn owls, kestrels, foxes, weasels and stoats all hunt along grassy verges. So our roadside verges are like long, thin nature reserves and help wildlife move across the landscape.
Our roadside verges, if managed sensitively, can be hugely important for nature and our living landscapes. There are 238,000 hectares of road verge grassland in Britain with Norfolk alone having more than 20,000 kms of road verges. Across Britain verges support over 1,000 species of flowering plants including some species now confined to verges. With the loss of so many natural meadows in Norfolk today you are more likely to see a cowslip growing on a road verge than in a wild meadow. Even orchid species, from common spotted to early-purple and bee orchid, can be found thriving on road-sides. Roadside verges are even becoming a vital refuge for some of Norfolk’s rarest wild flowers. In South Norfolk most of the last remaining sites for the nationally rare sulphur clover are on verges, perhaps remnants of long-vanished former commons and hay meadows. In the Brecks a number of nationally rare species including fingered and breckland speedwell, tower mustard, sand catchfly and small flowered catchfly all grow on verges. Some of these wide Breckland verges now busy with traffic were once quiet drove roads and perhaps the seeds of some the rare species found here today were once transported as seeds caught in animal fur, spread on muddy hooves or grazed, and then dropped in dung by passing livestock.
Our Norfolk roadside verges have huge potential to support wildlife, They form important grassland and hedgerow corridors enabling wildlife to move through an often inhospitable intensive farmed countryside and are also important habitats in their own right. Some are quite literally a last refuge for endangered plant species lost elsewhere as our grasslands and meadows succumbed to plough, spray and fertilizer, the tools of a modern farmland. Though just over 100 sites have been designated as roadside nature reserves sadly many others are poorly managed for wildlife and in danger of losing their value often because of cutting regimes that don’t allow rarer plants to set seed.
Our landscape heritage is reflected in our road network. Many roadside verges are ancient, lining routes followed by people long before tarmac and cars ever existed. In cuttings and roadside banks lies a microcosm of our geology, history and a time capsule revealing plant life once common across a richer and more varied countryside. Some wider verges were once hand-scythed with cuttings raked up for hay. Others were originally part of a network of trade and drove roads perhaps dating back to Roman times. Today they deserve our interest, respect and most of all our protection. So next time you take a walk on the verge remember to enjoy the wild flowers that grow there. They reveal the story of our changed and changing Norfolk countryside.
David North is Head of People and Wildlife at NWT