There are, so they say, more square miles of motorway verges in the UK than there are nature reserves. Whilst nobody would pretend that a 6 lane road is a wildlife oasis, the grassy bits on either side can often be the most interesting wildlife areas for miles around. On Arran, the verges are all part of the appeal of island life, with more colour and vibrancy than most of their mainland colleagues as they don’t receive so many regular hair cuts. As meadows have declined and grasslands turned to monocultures, roadsides have become mini nature reserves themselves.
Its not just roads that have good verges, our railways have been around for up to 200 years and so have some great examples of wildflowers alongside their lengths, especially where they cut through rocks like limestone and chalk. The Settle-Carlisle line is a real pleasure as this time of year and contrasts with the grazed land outside the tracks. In Glen Ogle, the old railway line is still etched on the otherwise bare hills by a line of trees. Following the West Highland line, you can see the rich heather and scrub that can develop in the Highlands when there aren’t lot of animals munching away. The thinner soils of embankments are the best for displays, since over time the richer areas will become covered in coarser vegetation and trees. In Cumbria they have found over 600 species of flowering plant in their waysides and have adapted their roadside cutting regime to suit. It isn’t unusual to find Orchids growing by the side of the road, and some of the best sites for these strange plants are roundabouts.
Councils have cottoned on to the use of verges as wildlife areas and also places for floral displays. New roads are now scattered with wildflower mixes and the benefits of this can be seen on the M74 as an oxeye daisy swathe cuts through the Southern Uplands. In some areas, like Shropshire, they have gone for wildlflower roundabouts big time, developing special mixes and even adding non native meadow species to brighten and prolong the flowering season. Eventually of course, embankments will mainly revert to scrub and trees, which means that a lot of the flowering interest is lost, but perhaps a nice motoring environment is created. Since the age of steam has passed on the railways, tree cutting is less frequent, but still carried out, and helps to maintain an interesting flora.
Of course, there is other interest in the verges, like the ubiquitous kestrel hovering over the side of the motorway, but flowers bring interest and a diversity of angles of slopes which are good for a range of invertebrates especially butterflies and grasshoppers. A lecturer of mine famously led his students out into the central reservation to look at some interesting lichens. This is not to say that we should be building roads for wildlife but shows the paradox that these environments can be richer that the surrounding farmland. Who knows, when the last Chelsea Tractor runs out of petrol on the M25, it might be designated the UK’s first circular nature reserve.