Guest blog – Save our verges by Sarah Pettegree

Sarah Pettegree  has lived most of her life in Norfolk and owns the award winning Bray’s Cottage Pork Pies, which was named one of the top 100 social brands in 2011. That means she tweets quite a lot.


I live in a perfectly beautiful part of North Norfolk.  Most of my journeys are along idyllic country lanes, generally without a white line to their name. For the past few weeks I’ve been happily enjoying the last of the bluebells, keeping an eye out for wild garlic, watching the lime-green alexanders being replaced by the frothy cow parsley, and most recently, the first of the ox-eye daisies opening, like orange polka dots.

And then I’ve been close to flaming blue murder as broad swathes of the verges have been uniformly mown to a few inches high by a small army of contracted farmers on tractors, diligently scalping junctions, bends and all along perfectly straight roads, which to be fair ti them is what they’ve been asked to do. Huge swathes of beautiful flowers gone. Sorry about that insects – that’ll be my rates paid for that.

Not wanting  to have to creep out in fear of my life, I’m absolutely in favour of the high vegetation being mown at junctions  and blind bends (sorry again insects), but so far as I can see there’s no road safety benefit gained on most of the verges where the poor flowers used to be.

So, I did what I do in these situations and I tweeted.  Asking Norfolk County Council why mowing couldn’t be restricted to junctions and the inside curves of dangerous bends on North Norfolk’s lanes. I’m a big fan of @NorfolkCC (as we know and love them), they’re an unusually responsive local authority and they scheduled their first ever live tweet-chat on the issue with a Nick from Highways in the hot seat. I don’t know if the Nick knew what was coming.  The tweet-chat over ran by half an hour and as an exercise in open government was a total triumph. Sadly though Nick’s responses were mostly defensive, a little rigid, and not very helpful. You can follow on #vergechat.

Nick refered me to the 2005 “Well Maintained Highways” guidance document and saying “Our ‘standard’ verge cutting follows national guidelines – 1 metre back from road, extra at bends and junctions”. A very quick search of the 381 page long document came up with page 237 which reads somewhat differently “…where fine stands of wild flowers are present in the verge, the timing of cutting operations should be varied to allow the flowers to set seed. Varying the times of cutting from year to year will help nature conservation/biodiversity, since a greater number of plant species will then be given a chance to flower and seed in at least some years.“ Seems fair to me – and definitely not what I’ve been seeing in Norfolk over the last fortnight.

Apart from my own personal heart-singing joy at the beauty of the lanes, the roadsides are, as Mark’s well informed readers won’t need telling,  a  precious  potential resource for an ever-beleaguered ecosystem .  We refused to allow verge herbicide spraying to continue back when the world was young and this is effectively having pretty much the same impact. Locally, North Norfolk happily welcomes year-round  visitors who come because they appreciate a relatively unspoiled and definitely gorgeous rural idyll, I’m pretty sure they’d prefer to see flowers than wild plants pointlessly machined down before they’ve come anywhere near setting seed. And they’re right.


From Mark: please support Plantlife’s roadside verge campaign.




29 Replies to “Guest blog – Save our verges by Sarah Pettegree”

  1. Sarah, I agree entirely. Only 141 signatures on the petition this morning so we all need not only to sign ourselves but also round up friends and family!

  2. Quite agree Sarah. Out on my bike around South Norfolk and North Suffolk yesterday many verges had been mown flat. Blind bends and blackspots are one thing (OK, two things) but straight and gently curving verges seem to me to cause no hazard at all. I guess it’s up to the councils who award the contracts to specify which bits are to be mowed and which left, but I think I can guess what their response would be to that.

  3. probably 15 years ago now Westonbirt National Arboretum revised its mowing plans. Traditionally, everything had been neatly mown as befits a formal botanic garden. The plan was revised largely on nature conservation grounds to only mow in spring where really necessary. What resulted has become a new attraction – between one of our commonest and most overlooked wildlflowers, the humble Dandelion, and the top favourite bluebell. Now in late April the contrast between the golden open sunny, meadows of the wide rides, shading into blue on the woodland edge is a real incredibly beautiful spectacle which many people come specially to see. And it saves a whole load of mowing ! The planning does take time but you only have to do it once.

  4. Helen – I love the long, thin meadow description. Wish I’d thought of it!

    Jonathan – Thanks & I agree, the petition should have lots more signatures, I’ve just tweeted it.

  5. Many years ago I approached Cumbria County Council about the same issue. Not for flowers but for Barn Owls. Many Barn Owls in our region have only the verge to feed on so management is critical for breeding success. Before you jump in with ‘road deaths’ we have also carried out an age test for nest sites with fewer roads and in deed the older breeding birds are found on the quieter roads. But another reason for not cutting is also to slow country traffic as many road traffic accidents today are more likely on country roads than main roads.

  6. Never really thought about the benefits of leaving the verges alone as meadows. We have so many a change in policy could have a great impact.
    Thanks for alerting me.

  7. Not sure you are correct saying farmers contracted to cut verges,a technicality I know but think almost always it is contractors.Of course it is possible in your area it is farmers but I doubt it.Lots of jobs these days even on farms are carried out by contractors.

    1. Dennis, In my area farmers do get a bit of extra income by cutting verges and tidying up having been contracted by local Parish Councils. The larger Town and Unitary Authority has its own staff.

  8. Thanks for all the positive comments and information – heartening and interesting!

    Dennis, when we had our twitter chat last week the council did say that it was contracted to May Gurney (a large Norfolk firm) but went on to say…

    “… However most of our verge cutters are local farmers or local agricultural contractors so may be some overlap #vergeschat”

    so I think locally it’s a mix of both. It’s a very arable place so North Norfolk farmers would have equipment to hand and be well placed to mow their immediate area. But, as you say, this may not be the case nationally.

  9. I share your anger Sarah. It’s not just roadside verges though. I’ve been spending some time in Teesdale lately. A beautiful section of the Teesdale Way, which was in full spring bloom with ramsons, sweet cicely, red campion, meadow saxifrage, etc. etc. has now been strimmed bare. No more pretty flowers to look at, but plenty of new places for the dogs to use as a toilet. There were no access issues as the footpath is on stone. I was so mad I wrote an article in my blog: I’ll also be getting in touch with Durham County Council. I hope councils will get the message and leave wild verges alone.

    1. Yasmine
      Hate strimmers.We had slow worms in our churchyard until strimmers appeared on the scene = no slow worms

  10. Cumbria county council are making an attempt to get things right. They are cutting 600 roadside verge sections and removing the cut material, problem is that there only seems to be only one ecological officer administrating all of this !! there needs be an economical use for the cut grass to finance this. Problem is too much litter among the cuttings for animal food, but why not use the grass material mixed w ith wood chip for garden compost. A major problem here is massive farm machinery passing each other on narrow roads and churning up even sssi verges

  11. Pleased to sign this and have put this forward to our local Amenity Group as something we should be looking into, especially as Sarah kindly tweeted a picture of the verges in Ryburgh, which just happen to run alongside the road leading down to our own SSSI – the beautiful River Wensum. In the meantime, I will be happily sharing this around. Anyone tried 38 Degrees? whilst this might not seem to be their usual cause, they do seem to be good at getting petitions out there and often ask for suggestions.

    1. Hi Steve, that road dipping down to the Wensum is one of my favourites, I used to go swimming at the barn next to the river and have seen many a stunning sunset and barn owl down there. I was delighted to see it unmown & thriving. All power to Great Ryburgh! 🙂

      1. Sarah. I see the barn owl flying regularly down your favourite stretch of road and have even managed to drive slowly down the hill along side it as it was out hunting. I have dropped the petition link onto 38 Degrees facebook page and will ask the Ryburgh Parish Council what their involvement with verge cutting is. Inspired by your twitter pics, there will be a series of Ryburgh photos coming soon @ryburghaction. Steve.

          1. Ryburgh verges have been cut over the last 24 hours. Seems to be a sensible approach at junctions, especially given the volume of HGV traffic, and about a metre back along the remaining length of the road, with the loss of some poppies. Not quite sure that whole length needed cutting back, but HGV’s may be an influence on the decision making process.

  12. I think we are fairly lucky in Devon, because a lot of the lanes have high hedge banks I’m not sure if the verges have ever been sprayed much and many of them aren’t cut until the hedges are trimmed. However behind the hedge the situation isn’t always so good. One of the big changes in farming practices is early cut silage and this is having a very bad effect on wildlife in the fields.

  13. Just looking at Durham County Council’s site – I see they are still ‘weed spraying’. So all those plants that Sara has mentioned presumably count as ‘weeds’!

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