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Are we on the verge of a wildflower renaissance?

  • Video report by ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke

What the mower leaves behind, the traffic fumes smother. Britain’s road verges, increasingly the last vestige of our rarest and most ecologically important plants now need proper recognition say botanists.

With a change of farming practices since World War Two, 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost. And with them rare, and beautiful plant species, like orchids, yellow rattle, red clover, tormentil, tufted vetch and lady’s bedstraw.

Each has evolved close relationships with insects, they in turn feed the bats and the birds. Wildflowers underpin much of the 50% decline in abundance of native species Britain has seen in the last 50 years.

Wildflowers can still thrive on our road verges. Traditionally unaffected by the switch to more intensive agriculture on the other side of the hedge. But charity Plantlife is now warning they’re becoming increasingly unwelcome sites for rare and ecologically important wildflowers.

Mouse-ear flowers from April to September. Credit: ITV News

They’re being mown in spring time and through the summer by councils concerned about visibility at junctions. They’re also under pressure to keep verges “looking tidy”. And in areas that are mown more sympathetically, research now shows that traffic pollution is as bad for wildflowers as a fast-food diet is for us.

Nitrogen gasses in vehicle exhausts are taken up by roadside plants. The equivalent, calculate Plantlife, to 2.5kg of nitrogen fertiliser per mile of highway. A rich diet, that encourages large vigorous plants like nettles, goose-grass and cow parsley. They’re “thugs” of the plant world which can muscle out wildflower species, evolved to live on nutrient-poor soils.

Today, the charity has published its “Good Verge Guide” aimed at councils and landowners to encourage them to mow at the right time of year so that the bees have time to do their work and plants have time to shed their seed before mowing. They’re also asking councils to see if they can find the time and the money to take away the cut grass — so it doesn’t add too much nutrient to the verge.

Regular mowing during spring and summer months is killing off wildflowers. Credit: ITV News

Councils say they’re currently dealing with cuts enough. Though Lincolnshire is trialling a scheme where the hay is fed to a biomass plant for electricity. Worcestershire, who we filmed with today, say they are leaving as much verge as possible unmown till autumn.

If managing verges for wildflowers takes root, it could restore thousands of acres of wildflowers and all the benefits they bring.