By Veronica Wignall
All over the country, road verges have started to undergo a transformation. This is thanks in part to Plantlife UK and other conservation charities who have raised awareness of what researchers have been shouting about for decades: that verges make up a huge total area that could be home to a rich diversity of wildflowers, providing food for insects and birds and creating a network of habitat for the smallest to largest of our wildlife.
Road verges have typically been managed in a way that fails to promote any kind of wildlife. Similar to our urban greenspaces, it seemed as though tidy and flower-free is often the norm, with many councils mowing verges more than 10 times a year. However, a kind of revolution seems to have taken root in the last few years… As I write, Plantlife’s road verge campaign has more than 116,000 signatures, and, at least in my ecology-bounded Twitter bubble, pictures of flowers lining roads pop up every day from all corners of the UK. Many local authorities have reduced mowing for several reasons, including austerity-driven cost-saving (and, in 2020, the effects of covid-19 lockdown) – but at least here in Brighton and Hove, the Council now deliberately maintains some road verges as wildflower refuges, allowing plants to flower and set seed before cutting.
Road verges managed for flowers in Brighton city, June 2020
While researchers have recognised the potential power of the flower-rich verge for years[1, 2], Plantlife and other environmental charities have publicised the issue in a way that has fundamentally altered the way we see these spaces – not simply a drab component of our journey or commute, but a beautiful display of flowers and a valuable refuge for wildlife. When verges are mown unnecessarily, outrage follows in local news media, with headlines including “Council ‘Philistines’ hacked back verges” and “Grass verge wildlife ‘destroyed by councils’”. Similar storms erupt on social media.
I cycled into Brighton in early June and was devastated to see that many of the roadside areas previously left to grow wild had been mown. As I watched butterflies aimlessly flitting over beige piles of grass cuttings, their habitat and larval food plants decimated in a day, I considered writing an ‘outraged’ letter of my own.
There are reasons to cut verges, for example where visibility is compromised by long grass or encroaching trees or shrubs. Litter can collect in longer grasses, and residents may complain of areas looking ‘neglected’ or ‘scruffy’. However, there are ways to manage these issues. So, how can we manage verges to be wilder, in a way that suits everyone?
Plantlife has a ‘Good Verge Guide’ that provides detailed information on managing verges for plants and other wildlife. The key message is to “Cut less, cut later”. Seven main tips are listed here:
> Cut at least once: Cutting at least once a year promotes species diversity. One to two cuts a year combined with removing cuttings brings the best benefits for flowers and pollinators.
> Cut later: Mowing verges later in the season allows both spring- and summer-flowering plants to set seed, so that they can come back in following years. Leaving the verges for longer also prolongs habitat and food provision for insects and other wildlife. Cutting during the window between mid-July to the end of September maximises diversity.
> Cut and Collect: Removing cuttings after mowing means that nitrogen from the cut grass does not build up in the soil. Wildflowers thrive in infertile soils, so raking away grass cuttings is an important part of the management process.
> Structural diversity: a mix of sward heights allows plant diversity and therefore hosts a wider range of insects and other wildlife. Keeping longer grass at the back of a verge may be most practical.
> Road safety: Cutting longer grass, trees and shrub around road signs is important for driver safety.
> Visible management: Where there is anger or concern from residents regarding ‘scruffy’ appearances, it is useful to ‘frame’ verges by cutting a border around the wilder centre to show that the area is being managed. This also removes any vegetation that might be straggling into the pavement or road.
> Education, communication: as always, it’s important to educate about the ecological role of our wilder areas, including road verges. Reframing public attitudes towards ecological value and away from ‘tidiness’ as the aesthetic ideal is vital. Messaging from councils and news media can be helpful, as well as the conversations we have on social media and in person.
‘Framing’ wild verges shows the area is being managed
 Noordijk J. et al. (2009) Optimizing grassland management for flower-visiting insects in roadside verges. Biological Conservation, 142, 2097-2103.
 Philips B.B. et al. (2020) Enhancing road verges to aid pollinator conservation: A review. Biological Conservation, Early view, Open Access: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108687
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.