West Berkshire’s verges: BBOWT and West Berkshire Council survey our valuable wildlife habitats

There are about 700 miles of road in West Berkshire, slightly more than would be needed to connect Newbury and John O’Groats. About 75% of these (525 miles) are rural, so making the total length of verges with vegetation about 1,050 miles: quite a lot.

In each case, a one-metre strip nearest the road is the responsibility of the highways authority (WBC in this case) to manage, regardless of who owns it. Traditionally the main concern was for sightlines and general tidiness, to which end there were generally two cuts a year between March and September. That was pretty much that: a one-size-fits-all solution.

Over the last few years, however, our attitude towards verges has changed. Rather than being awkward bits of land wedged between a road and a fence or hedge, they’re now known to be vital habitats and wildlife corridors. Bio-diversity is recognised as important, and rightly so. In these climate-changing times, wildlife needs all the help it can get. This applies particularly to our pollinating insects and the flowers on which they feed.

Some verges are better suited to this role than other. Counterintuitively, the fewer nutrients there are in the soil, the larger the number of plant species it can support. Getting soil into this nutrient-poor condition is, however, time-consuming. Rich soils (often found on river banks) are dominated by plants like nettles to the exclusions of almost all else. Nettles are useful things in their own way but they do tend to take over: like us humans, perhaps.

For decades, then, the council did the simple two-cut routine, satisfying immediate policy needs but perhaps not much else. As awareness has changed, so some verges have been left in the summer and wild flowers encouraged. This could look great but led to confusions and misunderstandings with contractors and landowners as well as, perhaps, unrealistic expectations from the public. Some might have thought that the verges would magically become colourful havens throughout the summer; others may have suspected the no-mow policy to be just municipal greenwashing to save money. There was also uncertainty about which verges would respond well to what kind of intervention and management.

Clearly, what was needed was a proper survey of these valuable but variable habitats, followed by a plan of action and some clear explanations from WBC as to what was happening and why.

The first of these kicked off about three years ago when WBC commissioned BBOWT to provide a survey of the district’s verges. A report on the achievements so far was presented to WBC’s Environmental Advisory Group on 29 January 2024. You can see the 15-minute presentation here from about 57′ 30sec. The main conclusion was that the verges which had so far been surveyed have been divided into high, medium and low grades as regards biodiversity. BBOWT has suggested three possible options as to how WBC develops the project from here.

There are two drawbacks to the data. The main one is that only about a third of the verges have been surveyed. It’s to be hoped that one of WBC’s decisions will be to continue this work so that the whole district can benefit: to start and not complete would seem to be an opportunity missed.

The other is that each verge has been divided into strips of 500 metres with the whole length being graded accordingly. This seems like a broad-brush approach as it’s possible that examples of all three grades would be found in that area although only one grade would be allocated to it.

I raised that point with BBOWT’s Simon Claybourn. “Cost is obviously one factor,” he told me. “In many ways, it would be ideal to have 50-metres as the unit.” The problem is that there are about 65,000 25-metre verge strips in West Berkshire and, budgets being what they are, that might be pushing things. He stressed, however, that the grading isn’t just a crude matter of defining the strip by whichever grade took up the largest share of the length. “If there’s a particularly valuable bio-diverse area within a strip this would, as it were, get extra marks,” he explained. “The result would be that the whole of this area was allocated as high grade, even though not all of it was.”

He added that there were also the practicalities of the contractors’ to consider. Potentially having to stop and start the cutters every 25 metres would increase costs, errors and delays. As with so many things, decisions need to be taken based on several competing factors.

One thing that’s certain is that we now know much more about the district’s verges than we did three years ago. West Berkshire has some way to go before it matches Dorset (over the last few years most of its low-grade verges have been improved, so increasing bio-diversity and reducing and simplifying future management costs) but there’s no reason we shouldn’t aspire to this.

I also spoke to Paul Hendry, WBC’s Countryside Manager, who’s been leading this project from the Council’s side. He agreed with my suggestion that one of the results of this project will be that WBC will be contacting more verge owners to discuss how they and the Council can work more closely together. In some cases, this might even result in the landowners needing to do less work. Grants may also be available. He added that it was hoped that the results of the surveys done thus far would be added to WBC’s (excellent) online map and that any future research, if commissioned, would follow.

Once BBOWT’s report is provided, the ball is then in WBC’s court to agree the next steps. “I’m looking forward to seeing this document,” the Council’s Executive Member for the Environment Stuart Gourley told me. “We can then consider the recommendations and agree how to proceed.”

Finally, what can we all do to help this? Lobbying is probably the best immediate action. Make sure that your parish council and your ward member/s knows that you feel this project should be supported and suggest any verges that you think deserve special protection or intervention. Guerrilla gardening is not a recommended option (although if any group, including a parish council, wishes to adopt a stretch of verge than this will be considered: contact Paul Hendry in the first instance).

Biodiversity isn’t only on verges, of course: Simon Claybourn reminds us that “wildlife gardening is something that anyone with even a postage stamp of green can take part in,” following the no-mow May (and let-it-bloom June) principle. “Lots of small patches,” he concludes, “add up to a much greater whole.” You can also encourage traditional cottage garden flowers such as lavender, hollyhock and foxgloves that are all beloved of pollinating insects and reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides. More ideas can be found in this section of BBOWT’s website.

You can find more information on the verges project here. You can also contact Paul Hendry on Paul.Hendry@westberks.gov.uk.

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