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Road Verge and Green Space Management Best Practice

Our award winning Managing Grassland Road Verge Guide – a best practice guide and The Good Verge Guide have helped local authorities and national agencies, service providers, community groups, organisations and other key stakeholders to transform road verges and green spaces.

 

Guidance Documents

Managing Grassland Road Verges – a best practice guide

A guide for local authorities, government agencies and their service providers which supports the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges.
Awarded the “Best Practice Knowledge Sharing” in 2020 by CIEEM.

The Good Verge Guide

Your go-to source for understanding the conservation potential of road verges and a guide for communities wanting to transform local verges into wildlife havens.

Rheoli glaswelltiroedd ymylon ffyrdd – Canllaw arfer gorau

We are working to empower, enable, and support local authorities and other key stakeholders to create a systemic change in road verge and green space management across the UK.

Creating and managing species-rich grassland is a brilliant way to improve the biodiversity of road verges and green spaces, at the same time as reducing long-term management costs. Spaces rich in native wildflowers support more wildlife, are more resilient to environmental change, enhance ecological connectivity and provide better ecosystem services such as improved carbon storage.

At the heart of this transition, to improve the biodiversity of verges and green spaces, is the best practice management approach.

Our Managing grassland road verge – a best practice guide has been acknowledged by the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management as the Best Practice Knowledge Sharing Guide in 2020.

A lorry passing a road verge full of wildflower

Reduced Mowing Frequency

For wildflowers to thrive, it is vital they are able to complete their full life cycle – grow, flower and set seed. The optimum mowing frequency for wildflowers is twice a year, outside of April to August, with an edge cut when required for road safety and to keep paths clear.

Wildflower meadows and grasslands are dynamic habitats which rely on disturbance, such as grazing or mowing, to prevent shrubs and trees taking over – a process known as ecological succession.

For grasslands to be rich and diverse they have to be grazed – David Attenborough, Wild Isles

Therefore, we recommend a ‘managed for nature’ approach for road verges and green spaces. By adopting an annual cycle of 1-2 cuts per year we can reduce costs, minimise operational impact, and maximise the biodiversity potential of our road verges and green spaces.

Wildflower on a road verge

Cut-and-collect

Lower, more natural levels of soil fertility are crucial to enhancing wildlife value and reducing vegetation management costs.

Currently, due to high levels of chemicals such as nitrogen in the environment, from agriculture, industry, and vehicle emissions, the fertility of soil in road verges and green spaces is often artificially elevated. If grass cuttings are left where they are cut, they allow fertility to accumulate and present a physical barrier to regrowth. This means that only a limited range of the most robust and competitive plants thrive at the expense of others – leading to biodiversity loss.

As plants grow, they draw nutrients from the soil. By collecting grass cuttings, we prevent fertility in the plant material from rotting back down into the soil. With each cut-and-collect, soil fertility levels can be reduced, preventing more dominant plants from suppressing a wider diversity of wildflowers.

Grass cuttings can then be deposited at sacrificial (rot-down) sites or transferred to the back verge, where tall herbs and coarse grasses can be tolerated and where they will fertilise carbon capture in the hedgerow growth. This also improves the structural diversity of the verge vegetation, which is a key factor for boosting biodiversity.

Instead of on-site disposal, cuttings can be processed off-site where they can generate revenue and contribute further to net zero targets.

To learn more, see our guidance on How to Manage Grass Cuttings.

Variety is Key

Structural diversity of road verge and green space habitat benefits both flora and fauna – as we alter the height and structure of our vegetation we create new habitats for wildlife to find food and shelter. Part of this is taking a stepped approach, with short vegetation closer to the road and longer grass left at the back merging into hedges, banks or woodland.

On wider verges, this can be achieved by maintaining a standard safety cut where necessary, cutting 1-2 times per year for the central strip and maintaining a longer 3 to 5 year cycle for the back verge.

 

Greater Stitchwort in green grass

Building Community Support

Flower-rich verges and green spaces are becoming increasingly popular with local communities and are an effective way of encouraging wildlife into the heart of the built environment.

However, during the transition to a new approach and better results, they can be seen as untidy and neglected by some residents and road users.

To help with the transition, see ‘Building Community Support’, to learn more about some key factors which are crucial to a successful transition: such as raising community awareness, ‘framing’ taller-growing areas with shorter areas, incorporating ‘flowering lawns’, and taking a ‘managed for nature’ approach

FAQ’s

  • What about the health and safety of our road verges?

    Health and safety are a priority for road verges – it is important to maintain clear sightlines, pull-over zones, and safety standards. We can achieve this by cutting roadside edges and visibility splays where necessary but mowing verges less frequently and later where it is safe to do so. 

    By ‘framing’ the verge with a short cut, a wildflower-rich habitat can be allowed to grow, whilst maintaining safety standards and meeting public expectations.

  • How can we have wildflowers and make a verge or green space look tidy?

    In managing the grass on our road verges, safety comes first, therefore all road verges must maintain clear sightlines, pull-over zones, and safety standards.

    By cutting approx. 1m around the perimeter of a road verge the safety standards can be met whilst providing a neat and tidy frame around the wildflowers

    For green spaces, it is important to identify important community areas, that provide a function such as play parks, picnic areas or desire lines.

    By framing popular areas with a wildflower border, we can find a balance between community areas and spaces for wildlife. Where possible, introducing different types of grasslands into our greenspaces –  for example a short ‘flowering lawn’ cut every 4-8 weeks or a taller wildflower meadow cut and collected 2 times per a year outside of  April to August.

    To learn more see ‘How much greenspace or road verge should I manage for nature?’ FAQ below.

  • Why haven’t the wildflowers grown despite cutting and collecting the grass?

    Each verge or greenspace is unique. This is due to a variety of reasons such as location, land use, local climate, weather and soil conditions.

    Therefore, it may take longer for wildflowers to establish in some grasslands. An extra cut-and-collect, totalling three a year will over time reduce soil fertility at a greater rate and restore a lower-growing and more biodiverse sward. Cuts can then be made less frequently and later in the year, following a ‘restorative phase’.

    To improve the likelihood of a wildflower verge establishing, we recommend:

  • How much green space or road verge should I manage for nature?

    Each road verge and green space is unique, making it difficult to recommend a universal size. It is quite often site-dependent and informed by the functionality and ecological value of the space.  

    We encourage you to consider creating different structures of grassland through a different frequency of mowing when assessing your road verges and green spaces.  

    Different structures of grassland 

    Management budgets may not be able to extend to mowing frequently over full areas; but the relative proportions of different habitat types can be tuned to the local context according to budget, carbon targets, local preference and biodiversity opportunity. It can be helpful as part of a management plan to envisage open grassland areas as a set of zones, each supporting different grassland types which represent a spectrum of disturbance from high to low:

    • ‘functional turf’ for thoroughfares and amenity value

     

    • ‘flowering lawns’ mown every 6-8 weeks; maintain neatness and prevent taller vegetation falling onto paths; don’t provide full set of resources for wildlife but can provide abundant nectar and pollen

     

    • ‘wildflower meadows’ mown 1-2 times per year outside April to August inclusive; effectively perennial herbaceous borders of native plants you never need to weed, seed or water; able to sustain more wildlife lifecycles but requiring annual cuts so unable to provide structure or food over winter

     

    • ‘structural grasslands’ managed with a high cut or manual trim only every few years just to reduce bramble and sapling establishment but to retain grassy tussocks; not so colourful but vital for much of our treasured wildlife

     

    • ‘scrub mosaics’ where small shrubs, tall herbs and bramble mixed with structural grassland form ‘soft edges’ to native hedgerows and woodland

     

    Building Natures’ Ampitheatre 

    By framing high footfall zones with a wildflower-rich grassland border, we can find a balance between functional zones and spaces for wildlife and start to build natures amphitheatre’ that steps upwards and outwards from areas of higher disturbance.  

    By gradually mowing less often, as we move away from functional areas, we can create a range of complimentary habitats for nature throughout the year – while meeting the needs of functional and recreational spaces.  

    For example, if we have a frequently mown path or functional area,  we can move outwards towards a low-level flowering lawn mown every six-eight weeks, and then stepping up to a wildflower meadow mown twice a year outside of April-August until we reach the taller grasses mown every two-four years on rotation and left as an ideal all-year habitat for wintering wildlife. 

  • Should I add wildflower seeds to the road verge or green space?

    Seeding and planting should only be adopted as a last resort. While wildflower seed mixes and plant plugs have their place, it is often better to leave verges alone and let species colonise the space naturally.

    This way, they will retain the local floral character which makes our countryside so special: a Norfolk roadside, with Green-winged Orchids (Anacamptis morio) and Sulphur Clover (Trifolium ochroleucum), is different to an Argyll verge with Lesser Butterfly Orchids (Platanthera bifolia) and Whorled Caraway (Trocdaris verticillata).

    ‘Wilder’ wildflowers have greater ecological value and are often better suited to the local climate and soil conditions, which might not be the case with the flowers in a seed mix. 

    Grasslands are amongst the most threatened habitats in Great Britain, therefore, we all need to play our part in protecting native wildflowers.

    For more information on natural colonisation, see our Meadows Hub.

  • I would like to add seeds to help establish wildflowers, where should I source the seed?

    Restoring your verges or green spaces with native perennial species of local provenance is a great way to restore biodiversity and celebrate the local natural heritage of your community. Using native perennials will also maximise your chances of success and the ecological value of your patch. It is important to get this right and source seed from a reliable and reputable source.  

    For more details on sourcing native seeds, our Meadows Hub covers the importance of native seed further and the best options for establishing wildflowers by allowing for natural colonisation or using brush-harvested or hand-collected seeds and the key points to consider when buying commercial seed mix 

Plantlife’s road verge and green space work has been generously supported by The Garfield Weston Foundation and MW Tops Wildlife Conservation Project