A quiet roadside revolution is boosting wildflower populations

In 2014, Giles Nicholson was battling the growing year from hell. A mild winter followed by a warm, wet spring had turbocharged a ferocious mass of cow parsley, nettles and dense grass along the hundreds of miles of road his team maintains for Dorset council.

Austerity meant there was barely enough money to pay for repeated cuttings to hold back the matted swards. Complaints poured in about messy roadsides.

“[The machinery] wouldn’t go through it,” says Nicholson, recalling the overspilling verges.

But the chaos of that summer would prove an unlikely turning point for wildflowers and biodiversity in the English county. Vast stretches of roadside have been transformed. Where there were thick clumps of grass, there are low-growing wildflowers such as black medic, birds-foot trefoil and red clover. The verges are cut two or three times a year, not 12, saving the council tens of thousands of pounds. Butterflies and other invertebrates have returned in their droves.

The reasons behind this unlikely mini-revolution for biodiversity are simple. When the worst of the 2014 growing season was over, ecologist Philip Sterling was brought in to oversee the council’s service team. He and Nicholson, Dorset council’s countryside and greenspace manager, set about applying the centuries-old principles of hay making to the management of verges, cul-de-sacs and urban grass patches across the county. It is a practice that has now been adopted by other counties in the UK, including in Lincolnshire.

The process is simple: cut infrequently, ideally, just twice a year in spring and then late summer once plants have bloomed and seeded; remove the clippings to gradually reduce the fertility of the soil and prevent a buildup of mulch; repeat, wait, and enjoy the resurgent wildlife and flowers.

“It will not fail,” says Sterling, who, as programme manager for charity Butterfly Conservation’s building sites for butterflies project, has taken his roadside revolution around the country to any local authority that will listen. “As fertility declines in a soil, biodiversity increases. At first that seems a little counterintuitive because you imagine the more you pour into a soil, the more plants that can grow. That’s not how it works in the natural system. In more fertile systems, a few species dominate and they swamp and smother everything else.”

Grass cuttings are almost always left where they fall along the thousands of miles of road verges that are maintained by law in the UK. Over time, the resulting mulch increases the fertility of the soil, meaning the grass grows with increasing vigour and needs to be cut more frequently. The cut and collect method breaks the cycle.

The before and after photos of otherwise ordinary roadsides across Dorset show the dramatic effects of Nicholson and Sterling’s maintenance regime, as suffocated seed banks have been allowed to spring back into life. Yarrow and yellow flashes of lady’s bedstraw punctuate roadsides and roundabouts throughout summer. Magenta pyramidal orchids linger outside a branch of Tesco.

The cost savings of managing roadsides this way are equally stunning for the council’s accounting department. The annual budget for highway verge management dropped from nearly £1m to £650k in five years under the cut and collect, low fertility approach. London boroughs, councils from across the country and European governments are paying attention.

“For the last 40 years we’ve been doing entirely the wrong thing,” says Sterling, impatient with the possibilities for roadsides across the UK and beyond.