Roadsides: a Hidden Wildlife Refuge

Guest Post by Stephen Thompson

Colourful swards of flora, bees settling on stamens, and butterflies hastily gathering rich nectar. Acts you might associate with manicured flowerbeds in the garden – or a secluded fragment of the local park. However, a typical garden, small meadow, or arable grassland tends to only support a few tenacious flowering species, more often than not tucked away at the margins. And in many cases, only a single species of grass!

True wildflower meadows are a habitat that we are losing rapidly, yet they support an unparalleled diversity and abundance of species. Along with bees and butterflies, beetles and birds also thrive in a tussocky grassland, spared the weekly mowing of traditional lawns or the overgrazed pasture. It could be a fiery goldfinch enjoying thistle seeds, or a shield bug drinking deeply from abundant plant sap in the undergrowth.

Unfortunately, over the last hundred years, biodiverse grassland habitats have declined dramatically in the UK. In 1980, it was estimated that only 3% of meadows were still in existence from the 1930s. This tragic reduction shows no sign of stopping as the remaining outposts cling on. Arable land makes up a significant proportion of UK landmass, but gone are the days when meadows would be lightly grazed by cattle, sheep or goats.

Common Spotted Orchid

As the pressure mounts to make land more productive, species-rich grassland and meadows have been drained, ploughed, and drilled with fast-growing agricultural grasses. Like an ancient woodland being replanted with sterile conifers from faraway shores, this practice leads to the loss of valuable habitat to native wildlife, alongside the suppression of a soil seed bank established over hundreds of years.

Faster growing grass makes frequent cuttings more possible, which is ideal for silage (concentrated super hay). But this means cuts happen earlier in the year, removing many plant species before they can flower. Twinned with the disastrously liberal use of pesticides – both in the garden and farm – plants and the creatures that depend on them stand little chance of recovery.

Existing areas of rich grassland that are spared the plough come under increased threat of fragmentation from urban developments. Famed conservationist Aldo Leopold described such heart-wrenching events as “another little episode in the funeral of native flora, which is in turn is one episode in the funeral of the floras of the world.

But there are traces of wildflower meadows amongst the expanding urban sprawl. Margins of arable fields might be blue with speedwells and dog violet, or a slither of your local playing field could be free from the incessant blade – hosting a collection of spotted orchids. But to see boundless and intensely coloured fields, you have to travel to some far-flung and forgotten corner of the countryside – often a specially designated site, with weather-beaten notice board and friendly volunteer to boot. But wildflowers also hide their tender heads in places that you wouldn’t expect.

Cowslip

Dissecting the heart of north-east England is the A19 – a dual-carriageway linking the urban centres of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Sunderland, and Middlesbrough in less than an hour’s drive. The road commands fantastic views of the Durham coastline, post-industrial Teesside and the Cleveland hills at certain points. However, it’s also noisy, polluted and the service station food is middling at best!

British roads such as this are associated with many things; speed cameras, noise pollution, traffic jams, and casually tossed litter – none of which are particularly inspiring. Roads aren’t for the most part conducive to nature either. Badgers, foxes, deer, hedgehogs, frogs, and toads are flattened in their thousands each year (all to the delight of rooks and raptors!). Roads also peel apart the countryside, and can break up long-standing ecological corridors connecting biotic communities.

Yet looking closely at the A19 roadside on a day in June, you might notice some flashes of colour from the short, grassy verge blurring through the passenger window. Pink, blue, yellow, violet and white – at 70mph it’s hard to differentiate. If you could slow down and look at the vegetation; knapweed, harebell, yellow-wort, cowslip, and fairy flax may reveal themselves. Look closer still, and you might see that these plants are nestled within a bed of glaucous sedge, cock’s-foot, Yorkshire-fog, and sweet vernal-grass. Orange-tip and Peacock butterflies could even be collecting nectar. Later in the year, birds might feed on some plantain and ragwort seeds – plants that are the scourge of lawns and farmland alike.

Peacock Butterfly

Since the Summer of 2017, conservation organisations have been working to revitalise the verges of the A19, in collaboration with the company responsible for maintaining the road. This has included advising them on how to connect and restore the latent biodiversity along the road network, and surveying large sections of the roadway to set a baseline for botany and to aid in prioritising certain areas for restoration.

When the A19 crosses over County Durham, it traverses a geological outlier in the British Isles – a magnesian limestone belt occurring in a narrow band originating in Nottinghamshire, running inland across the Pennines, and culminating in the Durham lowlands and coast. A large portion of the A19 sits on these rich chalky soils. Gentians, ox-eye daisy, lady’s bedstraw, and a plethora of orchids are all highlights, with botanists and conservationists travelling from all over the country to locate these limestone-loving species. Many of these locally rare species are already present at the roadside and are on the increase – thanks to the dedicated work of conservationists.

Such work involves the low intensity disturbance (cutting) vital to wildflower meadows, normally occurring in late summer. Responsible grazing would be a more natural form of management, but there a few implementation issues – cows by a duel carriageway as one! Particularly difficult areas (completely dominated by nettles or thistle for example) may also be cut in the early spring, to reduce the nutrient load and encourage the recovery of herb species. Scrub and trees are cut back when necessary, to prevent excessive shading of grassland areas, and any bare ground existing or created can quickly be reseeded.

These sites are regenerated with the application of a local seed mix, or green hay from a nearby species rich grassland – but in a lot of cases grasslands will renew naturally from the seed bank locked away underground. The seed bank beneath our feet is raring to go if left alone; first we might see clover, dandelion and buttercup colonising, followed by speedwell and vetches.  Even precious orchid seeds may lie beneath, ready to sprout forth into a glorious bloom.

Both botanically and aesthetically, this network of roadside mini-meadows goes deeper. Invertebrates, birds and mammals all benefit from the additional food sources and undergrowth, providing cover to travel between different habitats. With the cycle of growth and decay, the soil can recover and the natural seed bank is replenished. This in turn rebuilds the valuable topsoil, increasing nutritional value for invertebrates and improving drainage.

Tree Bumblebee

The A19 project serves as a promising starting point for the ecological integration of natural systems into our urbanised lives. In the near-future, who wouldn’t love to see living landscapes lining every road across the UK, with green bridges reconnecting ecological communities? The government’s Road Investment Strategy promises a net gain in biodiversity by 2040 – a stiff and admittedly vague target – but taking the early positives from the A19 initiative, it is an encouraging position. Indeed, with the world facing catastrophic losses in biodiversity, we need all arms on deck – roadsides included.

Whilst you may be familiar with the neatly-planted ‘wildflowers’ on some roundabouts and verges, creating an oasis in the middle of a monoculture desert is not the answer. Chemical-soaked lawns need to be confined to the golf course, or even better – done away with. Otherwise, the loss of nonhuman nature will continue to heighten, with devastating consequences for all. The savannahs devoid of betony, beetle, and bee can be restored even alongside the harshest human infrastructure – as long as the willpower and ecological consideration exists.

Orange-tip on a Red Campion

If you’re keen to get your hands dirty, then try setting up a minimal management meadow in your own garden or community allotment. Rip up the plastic sheets, place the toxic weedkiller back on the shelf, and see what varied joys will spring from underneath. Go out with your local botany group, or join a nearby wildlife charity and share in the wisdom of others. Delve into your backyard with an old plant or bird book (or even a good mobile app!), and discover what’s hiding in the brush.

And don’t forget to encourage your MP, councillor, or local highway authority to work with a conservation body, boosting biodiversity on your local roads and beyond through direct action – not just hollow words. With nearly a quarter of a million miles of road in the UK, all the grassland, hedgerow, woodland, river, and marsh either side of the busy asphalt is eager to spring into bustling and beautiful life.

Brimstone Butterfly

Stephen Thompson is a trainee-ecologist and conservationist with Durham Wildlife Trust, practising across a wide variety of locations and habitats.


Images © Stephen Thompson

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