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|The Living Highways Project|
How an initiative in Powys is successfully addressing
concerns about our roadside wildlife habitats
By Michelle Delafield
Photography by Liz Fleming-Williams
Driving to work, cycling to the shops or enjoying a gentle stroll, whatever your daily activities, you are almost guaranteed to set eyes on a roadside verge every time you leave the house. Road verges are a part of our lives and for most of us, they probably represent our most frequent encounter with nature.
Today, roadside verges have become a high priority for nature conservation. They contain some of the last remaining examples of the species-rich habitats that have declined in the wider countryside at an alarming rate over the past few decades.
Members of the older generation may have memories of fields teeming with wild flowers and animals, but for most of us today, our favourite areas of wildflowers are likely to be along rural lanes, many of which have escaped the impact of intensive land management. Roadside verges have become increasingly important in their own right as a refuge for plants and animals, but they also have a vital role as a lifeline, which will enable our native habitats and species to spread again in the future.
The Living Highways Project aims to increase awareness of the issues affecting road verge habitats and to protect and improve the quality of Powys road verges through appropriate management. It was set up in 2001 as a result of the high level of concern being expressed by Powys residents, over current verge management practices and their possible impact on wildlife.
The Brecknock Wildlife Trust set up the project, in liaison with the other two Powys Wildlife Trusts, in Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire, and with a wide range of other organisations including Powys County Council, the Countryside Council for Wales, the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority (BBNPA), the Farmers’ Union of Wales, community groups and individual professionals. Funding for the initial 21 month pilot project came from the BBNPA and was confined to the sub-county of Brecknock. Further funding has been provided by the Shell Better Britain Campaign, Powys County Council and the Brecknock Wildlife Trust.
The project has subsequently started to expand its activities across the rest of Powys under short-term funding from the Lottery funded ‘Awards for all Wales’ scheme and there are plans to secure funds from a new source next year to develop particular areas of the project. Powys County Council has also taken on the cost of all special management requirements for road verges in the project.
Roadside habitats are a feature of the ‘Biodiversity Action Plans’ that have been produced for Powys, the Brecon Beacons National Park and the Welsh Trunk Road Estate. These plans have helped to formalise the status of road verges and other linear habitats. Local Biodiversity Action Plans exist for all areas in Britain, as part of the UK’s commitment to the international Convention on Biodiversity.
There are a number of important management considerations relevant to road verges. In the past, the road verge had its own special place in the rural economy. The vegetation was often harvested by taking a hay crop or by grazing and in many cases a lengthsman was employed to maintain the verges along a fixed length of highway. Hand scything continued up until the end of the 1950s, with the cuttings raked up for hay.
Today, verge maintenance in Powys is the responsibility of the County Council and is mainly carried out by tractor-mounted flail cutters. The flail cutter has made it possible to maintain the road verges at low cost and the flexibility they offer in terms of cutting height and angle, gives them an advantage over earlier mechanised mowers. However, mechanization has brought with it a number of disadvantages for wildlife. It is common today to mow extensive areas in a single day, but a rotational system would be much better for wildlife, to ensure that only a proportion of the habitat is disrupted at any time.
Another recent change is that cut vegetation is now left on the verge to rot. This can smother the underlying plants and result in the loss of many plant species over a period of time. Road verges today are also exposed to higher levels of nutrient input than in the past, from sources including pollutants, fertilizers and de-icing salt. Increased soil fertility on many of our verges is leading to an increase in the proportion of large, invasive plants at the expense of other species and it can be helpful to cut more frequently to control these on some sites, provided the cuttings are removed.
The Living Highways Project has set up 85 ‘Roadside Verge Nature Reserves’ (RVNRs), at sites of particular botanical or wildlife interest across Powys. An individual management regime is applied to each site, to suit the particular species present. This often involves mowing at specific times of the year and removing cut material from the site. Each RVNR is clearly marked and the plant populations are monitored by volunteers from the local community. This monitoring information will be used to guide the future management of the RVNRs.
The Roadside Verge Nature Reserve system is a very effective way to direct resources at the highest priority sites and provide them with a relatively high level of protection, but what about all of the other road verges in Powys? The project has also been working hard to address the overall management of road verges in Powys and to bring about improved practices on a wide scale. The success of the Living Highways Project is probably due to the sense of teamwork that has been developed between all the organisations involved. As a result, the project has been able to focus on finding practical solutions that take account of wildlife conservation along with road safety concerns and resource constraints. While this has involved compromise on all sides, it has led to real progress and fostered a positive atmosphere for future developments.
The Living Highways Project still has a long way to go and there are lessons being learnt from mistakes along the way. However, the project has been successful in bringing about a number of positive changes to road verge management in Powys, with limited resources. If we want to see improved management of our road verges on a wider scale in the future, we will need to find ways of resourcing changes to the mowing schedule, equipment and manpower. For example, the project has been investigating the possibility of removing cut material from road verges on a large scale. The cost implications mean that this is not currently possible, but studies are planned to look at the feasibility of using the cut vegetation in composting schemes or in commercial methane production plants.
The Living Highways Project grew out of a heart-felt voice from a few local people and is an example of what can be achieved when the will is there. Many similar projects have been set up independently across Britain and there is an increasing awareness that we must safeguard these vital areas for generations to come.
|If you have any queries or comments, please contact Michelle Delafield, Living Highways Project Officer, Brecknock Wildlife Trust, Lion House, Bethel Square, Brecon, Powys LD3 7AY, Tel. 01874 625708.|