And so I was more susceptible to making the link between this press release from CPRE about lowering the speed limit in rural areas and the state of our verges. The main justification for over-enthusiastic verge cutting is road safety. We are all in favour of road safety. If rural speed limits were reduced then the need for verge trimming for visibility at high speeds would also be reduced. And therefore, if you like pretty plants you might want to support a move towards slower cars. Isn’t it interesting how things join together?
After a twitter chat about damaged verges, Norfolk County Council provided some useful information. One useful source of information for local authorities and others is the document: Well Maintained Highways: code of practice for highway maintenance management which is produced by the UK Roads Liaison Group. Now, clearly, the ins and outs, ups and downs, of highway maintenance management are far wider and deeper than just how and how often verges in rural areas should be cut – almost all human life is here, and many of the words in this document are there to prevent human death so it is, indeed, serious stuff.
Nature conservation and biodiversity do get a look-in in this document – on pages 231 and 232. There, it is said ‘Highway verges and the wider ‘soft estate’ both have implications for conservation and biodiversity. Specialist advice should be sought on the management of these areas, in order to achieve the correct balance between safety, amenity, nature conservation and value for money.‘. That sounds good – I wonder how often and how widely local authorities seek specialist advice on frequency and timing of cutting?
Later in this short section the document quotes Staffordshire County Council as advising that : ‘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. Such variations in the cutting regime should not take place, where it would be detrimental to safety due to obstruction of visibility.’. So, although the road safety aspect is mentioned there is clear guidance that unless road safety is of overriding importance (and how should that be judged I wonder?) then varying the timing of cutting from year to year is an important and best-practice aspect of roadside maintenance. this is because different plants seed at different times, but seeds live a long time in the soil, and so by varying timing each year should allow a proportion of plants to set seed and for those seeds to be added to the seed bank. It might be worth asking your local authority whether they follow this practice and how often they override in on safety grounds and how those safety grounds are quantified.
I’m just guessing here really, but I suspect that this code of practice (which doesn’t look bad on the face of it and should be promoted to local authorities) has not been reviewed by Natural England or any other conservation experts – it’s just a guess because if it had been then perhaps the reference to English Nature (which ceased to exist in October 2006) would have been removed from this document which was updated in January 2012 (and many times since 2006); although how long its successor body, Natural England, will be with us is a matter of conjecture.
I would commend this example of verge management to you – it comes from the Cotswolds and seems to have been written with a lot of clarity and a lot of common sense. What do you think of it? The suggestion that one cut after July is all that is needed in many cases and that cut material should be removed and composted hits most of the nails on their heads doesn’t it? i would commend this to the UK Roads Liaison Group to include in their next update