Roads and wildlife have a complex relationship. Roads can still cause damage and destruction to wildlife and nature. But roads and other infrastructure can also create the opportunity to let nature thrive.
Just down the road from us is the Weymouth Relief Road. The road cut through the South Dorset Ridgeway, which is made of chalk. The normal approach to dealing with a large cutting would have been to sow it with a mix of amenity grasses and mow it, or plant it with trees. Trees and roads can be problematical though, as once they get big enough, there is a real risk they will fall down or lose branches, causing accidents. Grass it often is then, regularly mown to keep it tidy, leaving few opportunities for nature.
Thankfully here in Dorset we have some enlightened people like Dr Phil Sterling at Dorset County Council, until recently the County Ecologist. He suggested sowing the bare chalk with wildflower seed collected from local limestone grassland sites. He had to mount a very strong case to change the way things were done, but one argument was that a great deal of money would be saved because the area would not need to be regularly mown, not having any grass in it. He won the day and the cutting was sown with plants that love bare chalk, such as Kidney vetch, Horseshoe vetch and Bird’s-foot trefoil, as well as other flowers like Ox-eye daisy. These just happen to be the food plants for a variety of threatened butterflies, including the Small Adonis and Chalkhill Blues. All these flowers also provide hectares of nectar for other invertebrates, including, of course, Bees.
Fast forward a few years and this is what it looks like:
Only a few miles away on a much smaller road I came across a tiny triangular meadow, little more than a glorified road verge. We had noticed it on the weekend when heading past for a walk along the edge of the Fleet. I went back to have a better look and it was a gem. There were hundreds of Green-winged orchids, among an exceptionally rich limestone grassland, with masses of Rough hawkbit, Ladies-bedstraw, Ox-eye daisy, Bird’s-foot trefoil and so on.
This meadow must be old, for all those flowers to have survived there. Most of the Orchis morio had gone over, but there were still a few in good shape.
I was surprised that the meadow didn’t show up as an area of priority grassland habitat on MAGIC, given how obvious it was right next to the road. I will check with the Wildlife Trust to see if they know about it.
I wonder if the people of the village treasure this gem of a mini meadow, when they post their letters in the letterbox next to it. I imagine they do.
Last stop was to check whether I really had seen a lone Greater butterfly orchid on a road verge half a mile away from the meadow. It was quite late on sunday evening after our walk along the Fleet and I had started to doubt my botanical skills. I found a convenient place to park and wandered back along the road to the junction where I thought I had seen it. The road must follow a limestone ridge, and on the north side, the closely grazed fields below were carpeted with wild flowers, while the horse who was evidently the grazier, was happy in its stalls. The road verge I was looking for was on quite a busy road (the inland coast road from Weymouth to Bridport) and I imagine there were a fair few peole driving past wondering what on earth this bloke was doing standing on the verge staring at the ground taking photos.
I was delighted to discover that it was indeed a lone Greater butterfly orchid, more or less at peak flowering.
What I was surprised to discover was that this orchid had the remains of a cage still protruding from the soil next to the plant. Someone had very caringly tried to protect the orchid from damage by creating a wire “hat” to stop it from being damaged. But the hat/cage had disintegrated leaving a few random strands of green plastic-covered wire sticking out the ground. The orchid had carried on regardless.
This tiny verge formed a triangle where the village road joined the main road at an acute angle – the butterfly orchid was down in one corner, next to a little bank covered in Horseshoe vetch. I’m not sure what had happened, but the main part of the triangle had been laid bare for some reason and there were large tractor marks running across it, which you can just see in this photo.
But although there was bare ground and it looked a bit messy, the plants were recolonising and a Wall butterfly was finding something to eat from the bare earth, perhaps licking salt.
Road verges, new and old, are refuges for nature. They don’t get much management and they don’t need much management. They are full of surprises if you’re prepared to stop and look.
I love the Weymouth Relief Road roadside verges! I went for a walk there recently and saw a number of new butterfly species for the 2015 – Common and Small Blue, Green-veined White. I shall be heading back there soon to see what’s out now!
On Monday (Day 1 of 30 Days Wild!) I got distracted by the roadside verge just above Abbotsbury, where there is a really wonderful view of Chesil Beach. I found a number of soldier beetles there, and need to work out sp – as I recently found Cantharis fusca at Lorton Meadows. This record was the first for it in the local area (nearest other record was Dorchester), and it is a Nationally Scarce sp! I now look at soldier beetles more carefully!
thanks very much Megan. I think the area south of the ridgeway down to the coast is a very special place, like a western extension of Purbeck, but with fewer visitors.
Out of curiousity, have you visited Lorton Meadows?
Not the actual reserve but I did walk over what is now the Lorton Valley Country Park a while back when I was at Natural England.
Ooh, you should definitely visit the reserve sometime, it is wonderful 🙂
Yes I will: I bet it’s looking amazing at the moment.
Absolutely lovely – plenty of dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies and bees! And of course, wildflowers!
Very good post, like the title pun. The central reservations and road verges cover a considerable area when considered together in the UK and I wish that the local councils or the government would stop mowing on these patches, it infuriates me to see a verge covered in ox-eye daisies, mallows and trefoils being mowed into a cricket lawn completely unnecessarily – it must cost the council money and it is not as if people have picnics on them!
thanks Elliot – exactly right.
So, it’s cheaper during the restoration phase and cheaper during subsequent maintenance. It looks tons better as you drive past, and is a really good thing for the ecology, not just because it provides a home for rare things, but (presumably) provides a fantastic corridor allowing plants and animals to move around a bit. Various NGO’s have been banging on about it for quite a few years. I don’t really understand why it is so difficult! Is it just engrained culture among the folk who build roads, or is something else going on?
thanks Adam. It is a lot easier to do if your road is cutting through chalk or some other infertile geology. A road through a clay landscape would be more difficult to achieve these results, but not impossible.
I think things have improved immensely when it comes to large new roads run by Highways Agency, but not so much with the small council-led schemes, as awareness of the possibilities has to be developed in each authority individually and Councillors also get involved.
Indeed what you write at the end seems to be the case in Powys. Though I noticed the Council strimmers seem to leave very small stripes of dandelions, sometimes.
Fabulous, I can only dream of such gems here in the north (HHLs), the local authorities here sadly do the usual after they’ve pretended to listen. NE – who? Talk is cheap, the landscaping or mitigation by developers is ‘expensive’ and dreary ….
But your post gives hope, one day perhaps there will be pleasant verges make their way north so I’ll remain a realistic and pragmatic agnostic 😉
thanks mud-lark. But I can imagine there being amazing roadside ditches on the HH levels full of interesting peatland plants and wildlife. Is that not right?
Sadly not to instant recall unless you count calluna or ulex? But like you I’d like to ‘imagine’ that there are some somewhere yet to be discovered.
We have neglected SSSI drainage ditches which used to be home to some gems but IDBs are not known for evidence based management any more that the statutory ‘guardians’ are of the two main peat bodies despite millions being given to both public bodies mentioned.
Let’s not grumble at failure today, instead we celebrate the gems you have enjoyed and here’s to many more such schemes being implemented as austerity causes common sense to win the day.
This is a great Blog – The Devon verges are also looking wonderful at the moment… maybe we should start a campaign called Austerity Verges!
thanks David. On the verge of austerity?
Interesting to see your post on a particular verge and have just read a Guardian article and then a different comment from Jeff Ollerton’s blog. How might be best to manage these verges and I suppose it would also be different in different habitats. I will carry on with my mostly leave alone where I am, although we are supposed to cut very early to lessen fire risk….
thanks Georgina – where are you?
Hi, am in Southern Spain in a small overgrown chestnut and orchard valley. This year there have been an abundance of wild flowers and I hope this will help create more if they rested well. Just wondering though what is best way to encourage this and when to scythe. Too hot though to do much at the moment and strimming is out because of fire regs. Just kept reading about verges though!
the time to scythe (and rake) is shortly after most of the flowers have finished flowering. This will be much much earlier in southern Spain than it is here. This clears away the dying vegetation and removes the fire risk. It also prepares the ground for seedlings to appear when the rains come….
Thanks and I guess that is coming up soon, although there are some more species in flower now and it has just rained! I will have to try different times in different areas as it will be the clearing of some of the dead vegetation that will be the more time consuming.
yes clearing dead vegetation is much more difficult than cutting it while it is alive. It’s the same with raking, best done shortly after the vegetation has been cut.
As you approach the top of the ridgeway going towards Weymouth, you get to the lone house on the left. Behind it is a field of wheat (?). In that field are several, very obvious, square, bare patches about 12ft square. they are so square they must be deliberate; are they patches left for skylarks?
I would imagine so yes Ian.