The autumn squill, Scilla autumnalis, has bright bluebell-coloured starry flowers. It is rare in the British Isles. It is also tiny, so small that most people could easily clodhop straight over it without noticing how lovely it is. I nearly did just that when I went looking for it in Surrey last summer until a kindly local botanist helped me find it flowering away on a grass verge.
I went home pleased to have met such a minutely pretty wild flower. But a few days later, the kindly local botanist got in touch again, distraught. The local council had strimmed the verge where the autumn squills grew, and they were no more. He had even told them that they should leave this patch of grass until later in the year so that the tiny squills could set seed, but someone had cut them down all the same.
Far more common than the autumn squill is the sight of a man with a strimmer cutting back the grass at the side of the road and with it the oxeye daisies, cowslips and other native flora which had been minding their own business while brightening up everyone’s drive. It seems a philistine way to spend money when local authorities are so on their uppers that they can’t afford to give elderly people the social care they need, or fill in potholes. Councils argue that they need to cut the grass around junctions to maintain sight lines for drivers, but that doesn’t explain why the banks and verges along uninterrupted stretches of road seem to need to be shorn even when the flowers are at their best in midsummer.
Some of those flowers don’t have anywhere else to live other than a verge these days: wildflower meadows have disappeared in much of our countryside, with nearly 7.5 million acres gone from the UK since the 1930s, while there are 500,000km of rural road verges in the UK. Those verges now make up half of species-rich meadows. They’re so much more important than just the bit between the kerb and the hedge. The fen ragwort, for instance, has just one site left, and that’s on a Cambridgeshire roadside. Though it has cheerful, attention–seeking blooms, this plant doesn’t have the same level of affection lavished on it as some of our rare native orchids, which can receive round-the-clock protection. Instead it has to share its home (as does the similarly endangered wood calamint) with burger vans and debris thrown from cars.
The strimmers don’t just threaten our flora with extinction. They’re also no good for humans, which is one of the reasons the charity Plantlife has started trying to persuade councils that obsessively mowing down wild flowers isn’t worth it. Plantlife started receiving calls from people who had grown attached to seeing common spotted orchids and cowslips blooming on the roads they commuted along every day. For many drivers, this was their only bit of nature during the working week, and it cheered them up. Angry-looking stubble did not.
Commuters might have been the saving of our verge-life if it weren’t for another band of slightly more vocal characters. Every council contacted by Plantlife said that beyond safety concerns at junctions, the reason they cut all the rest of their verges was that they were always deluged by complaints from people who didn’t like their local area looking ‘messy’. Indeed, when botanists raged at Norfolk County Council last month for allowing 2,000 bee orchids to be mown down in the middle of flowering, the local authority responded that the parish council had ‘not had any complaints’ and that they often receive complaints about verges looking ‘scruffy’.
Perhaps the neat enthusiasts could be assuaged by the knowledge that meadow management does involve cutting the grass at some point: it’s just that it’s best left until August or September when the flowers are setting seed, not when they haven’t had a chance to bloom. That still means councils only need to organise one cut a year, rather than multiple ones to keep the grass as low and boring as possible. Not cutting the grass at all, says Plantlife’s botanical specialist, Trevor Dines, is as bad as cutting it too early, as it encourages thuggish plants like thistles and nettles to thrive, and eventually the verge becomes scrubby and dull, with few wild flowers left.
Some councils have set up roadside nature reserves to protect especially rare flowers. Last August I crawled along the kerb of a road in Worcestershire to find a Deptford pink flourishing in one of its protected reserves. Dianthus armeria only grows in about 15 different areas of the UK now, and there it was, with its speckled pink flowers, by a noisy dual carriageway. But Dines argues that roadside reserves can be unhelpful, too, as they make it seem as though nature needs special safe areas, rather than being able to flourish everywhere: ‘Norfolk, for example, has got 15km of road verge nature reserves. But that’s 0.07 per cent of their verges in the county. That isn’t good enough: all verges have got the potential to be filled with wild flowers.’
So what can be done? In some areas, local Wildlife Trusts have taken over the management of our meadows. But one of the most powerful things that drivers admiring the common spotted orchids they see every day as they trundle along can do is write to their councils and thank them for making the area look so naturally beautiful. That way the grumpy neat-freaks lose, and the rare flowers like those tiny squills and fen ragworts might have a chance of winning.