Verges on the Edge

One country saying states: ‘Spring has come when you can cover five daisies with your foot.’ In Lincolnshire however, where grassland meadows and pasture have fallen to approximately eight per-cent of their former area, and roadside verges are under serious threat, that saying is rapidly losing its relevance.

Whilst many of us may not feel the impact of the loss of meadows, can we truly imagine a county road without its verges?

‘Spring has come when you can cover five daisies with your foot.’

As the earth tilts our green and pleasant land closer to the sun the days become longer, weakening winter’s icy grip. To the meteorologist March is the herald of spring, but, as any weatherman knows, it is also a period of instability; a rising ground temperature contrasts with chilly air to create a combination of fine days, showers and cold, frosty nights.

A ground temperature of 6°C (43°F) – regularly reached in March – triggers plant growth. Sap rises, buds swell and flowers begin to bloom. This is also the time when many of us, weary of a long winter spent indoors, venture out, keen to feel the soft green turf under our feet once again.

Verges in springtime demonstrate beautifully nature’s miraculous rebirth and growth as native flowers begin to bloom. Snowdrops are followed by coltsfoot, lesser celandine, wood anemones and, of course, primroses, which form clumps, collecting the sun’s meagre warmth.

The environmental value of verges was realised in Lincolnshire in 1960 when, in partnership with the Highways Department, the Lincolnshire Trust created the Protected Road Verge Scheme. The project led the way in the UK and other counties soon followed suit.

Despite this initiative the county’s verges – even those protected by the scheme – remained threatened. Clearly more action is necessary if we are to preserve these features and, in order to do so, we must first of all be clear about their importance and worth.

What, then, is the true value of verges? In order to fully understand this it will be useful to look at their history and their purpose in bygone days.

The seventy years between 1760 and 1830 saw a dramatic change to our landscape as parliament’s Act of Enclosures resulted in vast tracts of land being ‘parcelled up’ within hundreds of kilometres of hedges, ditches and roads. Straight drove roads of up to 20m in width were built between newly planted hedges. Whilst more recent influences, such as wartime airfields, arable intensification, new roads and housing have served to affect our landscape, what we see today is largely as a result of the parliamentary enclosures.

Drove roads remain a common feature of the Lincolnshire Wolds. The verges here, which represent the best surviving grassland habitat in the area, provided grazing for the flocks of sheep that were driven across the Wolds to summer grazing ground of the coastal marshes. Applications of manure, bone-meal and chalk or lime, extracted locally, allowed for an intensive cropping system.

‘Can we truly imagine a county road without its verges?’

Verges were also used for grazing stock or cut for hay until well into the twentieth century, until an increase in traffic volume rendered these practices unsafe. In the central clay vale of Lincolnshire, neutral loamy soil supported an abundance of species-rich grassland. In the years leading up to the second world war, during which mixed farming was universal, there were hundreds of small meadows, managed traditionally. This meant they were farmed solely for hay and for grazing, fertilized naturally with animal dung.

These meadows began to disappear during world war two and, with better drainage allowing for widespread arable cultivation, the process accelerated during the 1950s and 1960s. As the net area of meadows declined the significance of roadside verges rose proportionally, until they became vital in supporting plants and animals, some of which became scares owing to a loss of habitat.

So, in addition to being a defining feature of the Lincolnshire landscape, the main value of verges is the support they give to our native flora and fauna. They are havens for a multitude invertebrates and small mammals and, if managed correctly, display a profusion of wildflowers through the late spring and summer. The mix of soil types throughout the county leads to a diversity in verge character.

The richest verges are to found on chalk and limestone where the alkaline soil such rare specimens as autumn gentian, clustered bellflower, pyramidal and man orchids. Cowslip, spotted-orchid and adder’s tongue can be found on clay soil, whilst the acidic soils of the centre and northwest of the county also produce interesting displays.

In addition to supporting a profusion of flower species it must also be considered that verges, and their associated hedgerows, represent valuable wildlife ‘corridors’ linking habitats. Many verges also have associated ditch systems, adding to their biodiversity.

Several species which use roadside verges are themselves are subject of a Key National Biodiversity Action Plan. These include stoat, weasel, kestrel and barn owl.

Associated hedgerows and banks also provide refuge for other key species such as common shrew, song thrush and sparrow hawk. These safe havens are vital in that they may allow for future outward colonisation once favourable conditions prevail.

The Lincolnshire Trust’s pioneering initiative of the 1960s has led to 75 kilometres of verge being included in its Protected Road Verge Scheme, each section of verge having an appointed ‘Wayside Warden’.

This action is in keeping with the EU Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Flora and Fauna (Habitats Directive) of 1992. The ruling declared that member states should “encourage the management of features of landscape which are of major importance for wild fauna and flora”. The directive placed emphasis on those features of a linear nature, such as traditional field boundary systems.

Preservation of verges as habitat inevitably means that greater care must be placed on their maintenance. Traditional hand cutting, tree coppicing and grazing have principally been replaced by flail cutting and herbicidal sprays. These modern practices have been to the detriment of the native plants, invertebrates and mammals. Aside from unsympathetic maintenance, there are many factors that serve to affect the nature conservation value, or even the existence of roadside verges. These include:

Factors responsible for the loss of roadside verges
  • Road improvement schemes.
  • Introduction of roadside ditch systems, or modification to existing ditches.
  • Encroachment on verges by adjacent landowner. These may include ploughing of the verge.
Factors threatening the conservation value of verges:
  • Poor or inappropriate maintenance.
  • Spraying of herbicides.
  • Leachate run-off from adjacent agricultural land.
  • Invasive species such as Japanese knotweed
  • Planting of cultivated plants.
  • Cable and pipe-laying work.
  • Spoil dumping/fly-tipping.
  • Car and lorry parking.
  • Pollution and spillage from vehicles.
  • Run-off and spray from salt on roads.

Recognising these threats is one step toward their protection. As with all conservation issues, finding a solution represents a difficult and complex challenge. However, if we are to safeguard these extremely important wildlife sites it is imperative that appropriate management of verges is adopted. Only by doing so will their biodiversity – essential to our intensively farmed county – be preserved.