It is almost one of the clichés of the coronavirus lockdown that many of us have become much more aware of nature during these strange times. Quieter roads and skies have enabled us to hear much more birdsong, whether it is the blackbird several streets away or even a rare cuckoo. If we are lucky enough to have a garden, we have become acutely aware of each minute seasonal change.

During our daily exercise, some of us have enjoyed the delights of the open countryside but others are restricted to short walks around our own neighbourhood. If you are like me, you have probably taken a good look at other people’s gardens, but also become very conscious of grass verges, how much they vary and how they have been treated.

A vital refuge for nature

In just one road near us, for instance, I have seen verges treated like an extension of the neighbouring house’s lawn – mown close with grass and maybe an occasional brave daisy. Others have flourishing patches of dandelions and buttercups or oxeye daisies, clover, harebells and many others. Small pleasures, but compare this with the shock of those who have walked along the Brighton Road, for example, and found it mown right down during what should be a joyful wild flowering season supporting pollinators and other wildlife.

With over 97% of ancient wildflower meadows destroyed since the 1930s, road verges are a vital refuge for many bees, butterflies, birds, bats and bugs – a good verge would supply a diverse source of nectar and pollen from the first celandines in February to the last devil’s-bit scabious in September. Bird’s-foot trefoil alone is a food plant for over 130 species of invertebrate. Indeed, over 700 species of wildflowers grow on our UK verges, including many familiar wildflowers that are now becoming threatened, such as harebell, field scabious and ragged-robin, while rarities such as Deptford pink, tower mustard and spiked rampion are threatened with extinction.

So what exactly are our local councils’ policies towards our verges?

Promoting a pollinator pathway

We know that responsibility for mowing verges is divided between Lewes District Council (mostly on former council estates), and East Sussex County Council and Highways England (for major roads). Now the town council has been promoting a policy they could all follow. In November, Lewes Town Council passed a motion supporting Wildflower Lewes in its efforts to introduce and promote a ‘Pollinator Pathway’ through Lewes, which would involve establishing wildflower stepping-stones throughout the town.

It thus wrote an open letter to both the District and County Councils supporting the strategy of cutting identified verges once only in the autumn. This would support the Town Council’s work in addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (specifically: 3. Good health and wellbeing, 4. Quality education, 11. Sustainable Cities 14. Climate action, 15. Life on Land and 17. Partnership to achieve the goal).

In Lewes, the verges that ESCC had already agreed to cut once per year have been monitored by Wildflower Lewes for the last two years and had shown an increase in biodiversity. For example, the verge on the south of Brighton Road had shown an 81% increase in wild plant species since it had been cut only one a year. So there is evidence that not cutting in June/July allowed the presence of flowers that we may otherwise not have seen as well as giving more opportunity for flowers such as the Pyramid Orchids to have time to seed. Of course, the importance of highway safety is recognised and verge edges (one metre) and corners must be mown more than once a year to maintain sight- lines.

Naming district wildflower sites

Additionally, Lewes District Council had already agreed to four District Council sites in Lewes being suggested as wildflower sites: Malling Hill, Malling Close, Winterbourne Lane, including the triangle at the bottom of the hill (which is cut as a verge), and Jubilee Garden.

Ideally all verges in the town would be mown once only in the autumn but Wildflower Lewes has specifically recommended the following verges for one autumn cut only, based on public engagement and suitability of location in providing wildflower ‘stepping-stones’ through the town:

  • All the sites marked up by ESCC a couple of years ago with yellow flower signs as wildlife verges.
  • Verges along Prince Edwards and King Henry’s Road.
  • The acute triangle of verge on the corner of Hill Road / Offham Road (town side)
  • Verges along Monks Way
  • Either side of Nevill Road (from the school towards Spital Road)
  • North side of Brighton Road (provided the cycle way is not impeded).

This is all good news. But knowing exactly which council is responsible for which verge is still a challenging task, with many anomalous exceptions. Plus there’s still a lot of education to be done when it comes to privately-owned verges. During discussion at the Town Council, it was suggested that residents could be encouraged not to mow their verges by being made aware of the work and aims of Wildflower Lewes. Just walking a few suburban streets makes it clear that we still need to get the message out about the importance of our verges as wildlife habitats.