Wilding Parks & Verges Part 1- Bringing Nature Back

By Veronica Wignall

Imagine for a moment that you are a bee. Or for that matter, a songbird, beetle, fox or hoverfly. Where are you hanging out these days? Where are you finding the food, nesting spaces and company you need to survive, multiply and maybe even enjoy yourself?

It might be difficult to answer that question. Nature is often pushed to the fringes of our busy human lives, compartmentalised to where we want it to be. It is protected in reserves and zoos and tamed in our gardens, but often not tolerated in our streets or even our fields. In agricultural land, which makes up 72% of the UK land area, strips of flowers are planted in field margins in an attempt to compensate insects for the vast flower-free areas given over to livestock grazing or arable crops.

Connection to nature benefits human physical and mental well-being in ways we are only just starting to fully understand. Simultaneously though, researchers are warning of a widespread “extinction of experience” as our daily interaction with the natural world reaches an all-time low[1]. The less we experience nature, the less we care about it and seek to protect it, leading to some scary feedback loops that point towards a potentially bleak future.

But what if nature could be brought back from the margins and integrated into our everyday lives? What if everyone saw more plants, insects, birds and small and larger mammals that aren’t cats and dogs on a daily basis? I would argue that rewilding starts with the places we live, work and play – and that there are some simple steps to make it happen.

A good place to start is with how we manage our local spaces. Parks, road verges and other places like University campus grounds can be havens for wildlife. Or, as is often the case, they can be subject to regular mowing, spraying and pruning that leaves almost nothing behind.  

Mown areas in Brighton city, June 2020

Removing grasses and flowering plants from these areas is removing a lifeline for terrestrial insects, many of which are suffering declines both in the UK and worldwide in what has been called an ‘Insect Apocalypse’. Without insects, birds and bats suffer from reduced food supply. Remove the plants and you also remove shelter for small mammals and food for birds. Repeat the process each year and you slowly destroy populations of plants and animals that are given no chance to breed.

Sit-on mowers and diesel-powered strimmers also add pollution to the air, just as they remove the very plants that remove pollution and improve air quality, a major problem in cities. Last year, the London Atmospheric Emission Inventory (LAEI) found that two million Londoners were living in areas with illegal levels of air pollution[2], linked to increased risk of heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.

So why are we still manicuring our greenspaces to within an inch of remaining ‘green’ – if that?  When parks are managed for nature, a large majority of park users enjoy the extra wildlife[3]. More than 110,000 people have signed Plantlife UK’s petition to encourage flower-rich road verge management. Is there a widening gap between what people want, and management driven by local authorities and other land managers?

There are many examples where wildlife-friendly spaces have become the new norm. In France, weedkiller has been banned in public spaces since 2017 and private gardens since 2019. Following the ban, Lyon, the nation’s second largest city, launched advertising to invite citizens to embrace nature on their doorstep, spreading positive messaging about the changes people were seeing. The vice-president of Lyon city is quoted as saying: “On laisse la nature reprendre sa place dans la ville”. Letting nature reclaim its place in our towns, cities and lives is more important now than ever before.

Areas managed for wildlife in Brighton city& Sussex University campus, June 2020

[1] Soga M. & Gaston K.J. (2016) Extinction of experience: the loss of human–nature interactions Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 14, 94-101.

[2] ‘Latest data shows two million Londoners living with illegal toxic air’. London Mayor Press Release, 1 April 2019. < https://www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/mayoral/two-million-londoners-live-with-illegal-toxic-air>

[3] Garbuzov, M., Fensome, K.A. &  Ratnieks, F.L.W (2015) Public approval plus more wildlife: twin benefits of reduced mowing of amenity grass in a suburban public park in Saltdean, UK. Insect Conservation and Diversity, 8, 107-119.

Veronica Wignall is a PhD Researcher at the University of Sussex’ Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects. Her work focuses on key ecological and human dimensions of improving floral resource availability for flower-visiting insects. 

Twitter: @vronwig

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