Mossy Life

Guest article from Janet Cobb of RSVP:

Supporting the recovery of Shropshire’s wildlife

Over the last 60 years 97% of our wildflower meadows have been lost.  This loss has had a huge impact on wildlife.  There are more threatened species associated with meadows than with any other habitat in the UK.  Road verges offer a real opportunity to help reverse this loss.  If managed correctly, they could form long, linear meadows, providing habitat in themselves but also helping to link up fragments of remaining meadow.  

Shropshire’s verges have huge wildlife potential.  They could be wonderful linear meadows, providing nectar for pollinators, and food and shelter for small mammals, birds and other invertebrates.  Sadly, many of them are not managed for wildlife in this way.  They are regularly cut, with the cuttings dropped and left in situ, which increases soil fertility and encourages rank vegetation such as nettles, brambles, hogweed and coarse grasses to dominate.  The remaining verges that do still have a diversity of flowering plants are often cut far too early, removing the flowers and preventing them setting seed.

Restoring Shropshire Verges Project (RSVP) promotes the creation of wildflower-rich meadows on Shropshire’s verges.  It was formed in 2018 and is run entirely by volunteers.  Our main focus is the change in verge management, from a regular ‘cut-and-drop’ regime, to leaving the verges uncut between April and July followed by a late summer ‘cut-and-collect’.  We now support over 35 local volunteer-led verge projects around Shropshire.

How would RSVP like the verges to be managed?

We want to allow grasses and flowers in the verge to grow, flower and set seed over spring and early summer. A rule of thumb would be to cut and remove the cuttings from August onwards. However this is weather dependent so verges being managed as wildflower meadows may be cut slightly earlier or later than this.  This removal of the cuttings is key, as over time this reduces the fertility of the verges and allows finer grasses and wildflowers to appear.  In places this can be augmented by sowing wildflower seed and planting plug plants.

Will this make visibility for road users more difficult and lead to safety issues?

RSVP has the support of Shropshire Council, who we liaise regularly with.  Public safety is the primary concern and any verges which Shropshire Council lists as needing to be cut short for visibility reasons will still be cut as normal.  In addition to this, all ‘safety cuts’, where a 1.1m width of verge bordering the road is cut short, will still be carried out.  Many local authorities around the country, including Dorset, Lincolnshire, Herefordshire, now manage verges as linear hay meadows without any compromise on safety. 

Will managing the verges as meadows mean they become full of docks, thistles and nettles?

Quite the reverse!  The Council’s current management regime, where verges are cut several times a year and the cuttings are left to rot down and enrich the soil on the verges, is very likely to result in thistles, docks and nettles as they thrive in areas of high nutrients.  But a change to an annual cutting and collecting regime will prevent these species from becoming dominant.  Verges that have been managed as hay meadows by the introduction of species such as yellow rattle and a change to a cut-and-collect regime actually show a marked reduction in vegetation height over time, as soil fertility reduces and finer grasses and wildflowers become established.

What wildlife will the verges support?

Verges are basically linear meadows.  Meadows and species-rich grasslands support a huge diversity and abundance of fine native grasses, wildflowers and fungi. This rich habitat supports a host of bees, flies, beetles, spiders, moths, butterflies, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, bats and birds.

Why does it matter?

We are in the middle of a biodiversity and climate crisis which threatens not only other species, but the health and wellbeing of future generations of people.  This may seem unrelated from some small patches of verge in Shropshire, but every single patch of wildlife-friendly habitat, from a huge nature reserve to a window box, can play an important role in helping slow and stop this crisis.  If all our road verges become species rich grassland they would also be able to store much more carbon, helping offset our carbon emissions.

Supporting evidence

During the 2022 UN biodiversity conference, COP15, countries reached a landmark agreement that aims to reverse the unprecedented destruction of nature.

One of the agreement’s twenty-three targets, known as 30×30, aims to protect at least 30 percent of the planet’s land and water by 2030.

Across Shropshire roadside verges could make a significant contribution to towards this target by changing the management regime in any new highways contract.

The potential for cost savings over time is significant.  Savings could be used for roadside maintenance and the development of a strategy to replace missing hedges along roadside verges and the restoration of our ditch network – all significant contributions to mitigating the effects of climate change.

Shropshire is successful in the engagement of willing local communities and volunteers in proactive community capital building and the enhancement of Shropshire’s status as Shropshire Hills National Landscape capitalizing on visitors and residents alike who are increasingly appreciative of the landscape and wildlife.

Shropshire Council could also realize the value of the arisings in the production of biogas, biomethane or biochar using a process called anaerobic digestion.

Finally, Shropshire Council has the opportunity to lead the way nationally on this via its contract to proactively restore the roadside verges to native flora creating a ‘win-win’ situation.


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Caroline Talbot
Author: Caroline Talbot