Wild verges

Blog post by Sam Brown on 08 Dec, 2020
Thousands of miles of road verge exists in Norfolk with the potential to support an abundance of flowering species, act as fantastic pollinator corridors as well as being wonderful to look at as we travel through the landscape. Only the most species-rich sections are designated as Roadside Nature Reserves (RNRs). There are 111 RNRs stretching 15km; a mere fragment of the larger network.

Over 700 species of wild flower grow on road verges nationally. Here in Norfolk we have superb examples of relic grassland on our verges with nationally scarce species such as sulphur clover in the Claylands of South Norfolk, crested cow-wheat in Beetley and the rare fingered speedwell in Thetford.

Crested cow-wheat, by Roger and Jenny Jones

Crested cow-wheat, by Roger and Jenny Jones

This year, particularly during the first lockdown, many people got in touch with us to share stories of their local verges. Swathes of pyramidal orchids were seen along the A143 at Gillingham, bee orchids in Cringleford, burnet saxifrage in Tharston and wild basil in Wacton to name but a few. Walking or cycling locally seemed to lead to a deeper appreciation of the wildlife on our doorsteps and it felt like the verges were exploding with flowers and invertebrates. Sadly some of these verges bursting with life were cut at the height of flowering. Why does this happen?

Management of verges in Norfolk is complex, Norfolk County Council (NCC) are responsible for cutting many of Norfolk’s verges and currently cut a one metre strip of rural verges twice a year between May and September and urban ones five times. However some District councils manage the verges on NCC’s behalf as do a large number of Parish councils and some private landowners. More details can be found on NCC’s website.

If verges were cut only once a year between mid-July and end of September, their biodiversity would have a chance to flourish. Plants would be allowed to flower and set seed before being cut and declining pollinators would have thousands of miles of habitat in which to collect pollen and nectar. If the whole width of the verge isn’t cut then invertebrates can seek refuge on the longer uncut vegetation in order to complete their life cycles. Whilst it is quite a task to persuade every parish council to do this, there is now an opportunity to influence NCC’s cutting regime.

NCC are carrying out their annual budget consultation in which there is a proposal to reduce the rural verge cut from twice to once a year and urban verges four times instead of five times a year – saving £100,000. Verges where visibility is paramount would still have regular safety cuts. If the rural verges were cut only once later in the summer, imagine the blossoming of wildlife across the verge network!

Why cut at all? Cutting once is vital as the verges would quickly lose their floral interest as coarser vegetation starts to become more dominant and over time the verges would succeed to scrub and woodland.
Crested cow-wheat, by Roger and Jenny Jones

Meadow saxifrage at East Beckham, by Roger and Jenny Jones

Ideally grass cuttings would also be removed in order to maintain species-rich grassland by removing nutrients from the soil and preventing more vigorous species from dominating other plants. This is difficult to achieve at a large-scale on verges. However Lincolnshire County Council has worked alongside Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust to create an inspiring project where verge cuttings are harvested and taken to an anaerobic digester. They calculate that Lincolnshire’s road verges could produce enough biomass to provide electricity annually for up to 4,500 households or gas for 1,100 homes. I hope that in the future this could be possible here in Norfolk too.

Let’s take a step in the right direction and seize this opportunity to change NCC’s cutting regime and help put the wild back into our verges. Please add your voice to the consultation and ask for one late summer cut for all of Norfolk’s verges. The deadline for consultation is Monday 14 December.
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