Within weeks of being elected, I started wondering what I could do to make my ward more biodiverse. I knew that I couldn’t tell individual landowners what to do with their land, so I decided to look into how I could influence the way that land under local authority control was managed. For several years, I’d been following a Plantlife campaign in which the charity was attempting to recreate traditional hay meadows (also known as species-rich grassland) on road verges. They were doing this to compensate for the fact that the UK has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s, and all they were asking was that road verges were cut late in the year so that flowers had a chance to set seed, and that the clippings were raked up and disposed of so the soil was deprived of nutrients. This benefits rare plants such as orchids while suppressing most common plants such as brambles, nettles, hogweed and cow parsley.
The council officers I spoke to were supportive in principle, but told me they didn’t have the equipment to collect clippings and that (even if they did) disposing of them would be difficult and expensive. I nearly took no for an answer, but then realised that if I offered to deal with the clippings myself they would struggle to say no. I soon had their permission to give it a go.
I wanted the parish councils on board too, so I spoke to all eight of them. Two were keen, and helped me to identify suitable road verges within their parishes. The ideal verge is long, wide and straight – a later cut resulting in taller late-summer vegetation which could affect sight lines for road users on bends and junctions. One of the sites that we identified was perfect in every respect. The other was short and right on a junction, but wide enough that we could keep a few metres of short grass by the roadside to maintain line of sight for road users.
I then had to find out who was cutting the grass – and ask them not to do it until September. I discovered that it was quite complicated! The long site was cut by a local farmer and the short site by a contractor employed by the parish council, but at the long site a 1m wide strip alongside the road was cut by the county council and a mower’s width to either side of the footway at the back by local volunteers. I spoke to them all and explained what the plan was.
I was keen to maximise the educational opportunities that the projects afforded, so I reached out to the two schools that were closest to the chosen sites. Both were keen to be involved, and I found myself leading a “bioblitz” (an informal plant and insect survey) on the long site and delivering a talk on the importance of pollinators at the closest school to the short site. I also tasked the kids at each school with coming up with a project name and painting posters that I could use to make information signs. The short site is now called Wild Wall (because it’s on the edge of Wall village) and the long site is the Barrasford Bs (the Bs stand for Butterflies, Bees, Bugs and Beetles). The posters were absolutely fantastic.
I also wanted the project to be scientifically robust, so I persuaded botanist and entomologist friends to help me to conduct proper plant and insect surveys. We’ll repeat the surveys at the same time each year in order to monitor the effect of the change in management.
By this point the word had got out that the verges wouldn’t be cut until September, and some opposition arose. A few people complained that line of sight for motorists would be affected, and one man that cow parsley would run amok and poison dogs. I arranged a public meeting at the Barrasford Bs site, and explained that we intended to suppress the taller species and promote the shorter, more delicate species. I also explained that in the many years I’d spent in veterinary practice I’d never diagnosed a case of cow parsley poisoning, and that I’d been involving the local school children in the project. The complaints soon stopped coming in.
The verges were cut last September, and a small number of residents and parish councillors were happy to help me to rake the clippings up. I disposed of them at a local composting site. The parish councillors also helped me dig brambles out of the Wild Wall site over the winter.
The signs have been paid for by the two parish councils, the Royal Horticultural Society and Northumberland Communities Together. They were installed in early June, and look great.
We conducted the second scientific survey in late June, and identified 15% more plant species and 73% more insect species than we did in 2022. There are many possible explanations for this, so we’re not going to get excited just yet – but it’s a promising start! The second school bioblitz took place on 18th July, and the children had a whale of a time
It’ll be a few years before we’ll know whether we’ve significantly boosted biodiversity, but based only on the educational benefits delivered, the community engagement achieved and the fact that we’ve shown what’s possible with a little determination and some careful communication, I think we’ve made quite a difference already. If these projects inspire others to take on similar projects we’ll have achieved even more.