Verging on the Wild Side


Wildflower verges are a hot topic this summer. 

It’s clear that more needs to be done to protect bees and other wildlife. Wildflowers are a step towards improving habitats and there are some stunning examples of meadow-like verges in North Dorset. But are they to everyone’s taste and how does it work with road safety?

Wildflowers provide a habitat for insects including bees. Caressence Roden, project lead for ‘Stalbridge Goes Wild’, is passionate about wildflowers and summarises the rationale perfectly.

Stalbridge’s Wildflower Verges are a real community effort.
Image: Caressence Roden

“Without bees we will be dead.”

Stalbridge Goes Wild has been operating for two years, with a significant time taken up by the planning process to get permission and insurance. Caressence explained: “It took up to nine months to get all the paperwork done. The clerk at Stalbridge Town Council was fantastic as she knew exactly what to do with the process.” Caressence also had a lot of praise for Graham Stanley at Dorset Council with his expertise and advice on how to plant wildflowers appropriately.

If anyone thinks that planting wildflowers is simply a matter of seed scattering, they are in for a surprise. In Stalbridge a lot of the turf was removed before seeding to get rid of grass and that was back breaking work.

Luckily, there are a few younger volunteers able to lend a hand and builders provided some of the soil needed. The results this year gave pleasure to a lot of people as they saw the areas transformed into a glorious meadow of colour. 

Other villages taking an approach to wildflower planting include Hazelbury Bryan, Shillingstone and Okeford Fitzpaine.

But what happens when things do not go exactly to plan? Private contractors in Hazelbury Bryan recently cut a verge, killing hedgehogs. Jeanette Hampstead from Hazelbury Bryan Hedgehog Rescue regularly releases hogs in the area and was deeply saddened by the news. 

She advised: “Hedgehogs love long grass. They don’t mind being under hedges but love the long grass. If strimming, always check the area first, cutting a little off the top and then moving lower. It takes longer but is safer for hedgehogs.”

Caressence discovered one of the Stalbridge wildflower verges had been cut when she saw it on social media. 

“Another area contained large rape plants which a resident asked the council to cut as they had a problem seeing to turn safely in the car. 

Overgrown verges in our smaller lanes have become a common sight in north Dorset this summer.
Image: Courtenay Hitchcock

Unfortunately our verge was also cut in the process, even though we had signage in place. If only we had known, we would have cut the plants down ourselves to save the verge.”

It appears that communication is vital when maintaining wildflower verges. Many local residents have taken to social media, but equally as many are dismayed by the current ‘messy verges of knee high grass’ as the wildlife enthusiasts are thrilled to see them. 

The UK has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s. The success of the Weymouth Relief Road project here in Dorset, has lead to a new report outlining the potential present in our roadside verges. On the Weymouth relief road,   native wildflowers have thrived on the managed chalk verges, and the area is now home to half of the butterfly species in the UK.

Previous research has shown that reducing mowing to just once or twice a year provides more flowers for pollinators, allows plants to set seed and creates better habitats for other animals.

Dorset Council has over 4,970 miles of rural verges. It is one of the most undervalued habitats in the county and historically required a lot of resources to manage. Following trials by the council to reduce this cost and increase the biodiversity, the council now only cuts rural roads on  a reduced schedule – just two cuts a year for A and B roads, and once a year for C roads. They also collect the grass clippings to create a better environment for wildflowers to establish and thrive. This reduction in verge cutting allows wildflowers the time to complete their life cycles which benefits bees and other pollinators. 

Dr Trevor Dines, botanical specialist at Plantlife, said: “Our research estimates that if all of the road verges in the UK were managed for nature, there would be a spectacular 418,88 bn more flowers, or 6,300 per person in the UK. This surge in pollen and nectar would have a genuinely transformative effect on the prospects of wildlife.”

haftesbury Town Council have created popular wildflower verges around the town. This image taken on the approach road from Cann Common
Image: Courtenay Hitchcock

For anyone considering  a wildflower project, Caressence has some tips learned from the Stalbridge experience. 

“Firstly, you have to be excited to get people excited. Get the neighbours to support it as the community has to be in favour. And use the expertise of the town and parish councils so you are supported on the process and regulations. You also need to start small as you can’t do everything at once.”

It’s the small things that will make the big differences to bees and other wildlife. If we can all be aware of the importance of wildflower projects and support the protection of wildlife, our carbon footprint will take a further step to reducing its imprint.

By: Rachael Rowe


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