Herefordshire’s Forgotten Edges

You will, hopefully, be aware that Herefordshire Council have declared an ecological and climate emergency and are working to achieve net zero for carbon by 2030.  Herefordshire Wildlife Trust  is working with them to create a nature recovery plan, with the target of achieving 30% of land managed for nature by 2030.

Our road verges, green lanes and bridleways play a key role in nature’s recovery.  They are all places that hold a rich mix of flowers, insects and birds and are vital corridors and steppingstones for wildlife to move around the county – ever more important as climate change leads to more extreme weather events like those seen in winter 2019.  Over half of the known species in the UK are declining, with 15% at risk of extinction.  Targeted conservation efforts can make a huge difference, but ultimately, we need to change how we manage large areas of our land.  At a parish level we have control over the verges, green space and parts of the public rights of way network.

In 2020 around 15 parish councils have modified their plans for cutting green spaces and have requested that Balfour Beatty, the council’s contractor for verges, delay cutting until summer.  This change has been facilitated in part by lockdown: with less traffic and more people walking and recreating locally, enjoying the froth of cow parsley and campions after what was a long and very wet winter, we all feel the need to leave things to flourish.  The change also reflects an increasing understanding for the need to change.

There are over 2000 miles of road in Herefordshire.  If we assume that each has one metre of verge (flat or sloping are both valuable) on each side, it means there is around 1,500 hectares of potential wildlife habitat.  These areas, although often close to fast moving traffic, and potentially close to sources of pollutants and road salts, are largely low fertility sites – low nutrient being required by wildflowers; they are outcompeted by tough grasses otherwise.

Locally, many verges, rights of way and green spaces, if left uncut have cowslips, red campion and greater stitchwort on them.  If cutting regimes were changed the abundance and variety of flowers would increase.  The changes required are not significant and are cost effective, while bringing significant gains to wildlife and the reduction of carbon mostly through using less of it, but also through increased sequestration.  Nearly two billion metric tons of carbon is stored in UK grassland soils. 60% of this is locked up in soils between 30cm and 1 metre deep, so is very vulnerable to disturbance like ploughing or compaction. After decades of intensive grassland farming across the UK, with high rates of fertilizer use and livestock grazing, the level of carbon stored in our grassland soils has declined considerably. Additionally, between 1990 and 2006, an estimated 14 million tons of CO2 were released by UK grasslands that were converted to arable production. However, grasslands with diverse species, and which are grazed and managed effectively, have huge potential for soaking up carbon, not only due to the surface plants but due to complex relationships between surface plants, fungi, and the many invertebrates, bacteria and other species which help enrich the soil with carbon. Diverse grasslands can store up to 500% more carbon than monocultures such as fields of grain.

Protecting and restoring the UK’s grasslands, of which road verges are a part, could therefore play an important role in achieving net zero and recovering nature.

One verge Small Ashes, in Marden has green winged orchid, cowslip and an assemblage of grasses on it that one would normally associate with traditional hay meadows – a habitat that we have lost 97% of in the last 60 years.  That is some 7.5 million acres of loss.  The green winged orchid is only found at 10 sites in Herefordshire now.   Thankfully Small Ashes has now been designated a Roadside Verge Nature Reserve (April 2020) and will be mown only two to three times a year with the first cut delayed until July.

Nationally, 3 out of 4 crops that produce fruit and seeds are pollinated by bees and other insects.  About a 1/3rd of global food relies on pollination.  This can’t be done by farmed honeybees alone and certainly not at the prices that people are willing to pay for food.  We need a healthy countryside as nature underpins our own health and wellbeing.

Our verges, green spaces, bridleways and green lanes are supported by policy, which can be forgotten in the debates about how to tackle management and what balance to strike.   Herefordshire Council Core Strategy lists road verges as a Green Infrastructure Asset (5.3.17) and states (5.3.12) ‘Ecological networks are vital to the survival and dispersal of species’ ‘Herefordshire’s biodiversity makes a major contribution to the economy, supporting the tourism sector and providing a healthy and attractive environment for its residents’. The Green Infrastructure Strategy 2010 states that one of the Aims and Objects of the strategy (1.3.2) is ‘To establish principles and policies that secure protection and promote the enhancement of existing green infrastructure, and identify opportunities and means of creating new high quality green infrastructure’. Herefordshire Council has declared a climate emergency and crisis in biodiversity.

By supporting this proposal Herefordshire Council will be implementing and contributing towards achieving the National Pollinator Strategy 2014 and the 25 Year Environment Plan 2018.

So please join us in supporting these changes to the mowing and cutting of the green spaces as we play our part in restoring nature and addressing climate change within Herefordshire.

James Hitchcock, Herefordshire Wildlife Trust

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