Lincolnshire's road verges
We have lost over 97% of our wildflower-rich grassland since the 1930s, but roadside verges could be key in compensating for this loss. When managed for wildlife, road verges can be rich in wildflowers and insects. They can provide a network of corridors along which bees and other pollinators can move.
Since 1960, the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust has protected some of the county's best verges as Roadside Nature Reserves. They cover over 80km (50 miles) and are managed in partnership with Lincolnshire County Council with the help of our volunteer Wayside Wardens.
But Roadside Nature Reserves only cover a small proportion of the county’s roads. In 2009, we launched a citizen science survey of road verges called Life on the Verge. As a result, 165 roadside verges along 300km of road verge were designated as Local Wildlife Sites, accounting for nearly 100ha of wildflower-rich habitat.
The survey also identified sites with fewer wildflowers because they were being cut too often or not enough. By changing the way these verges are managed, wildflowers can thrive once more.
Now, we're working with Lincolnshire County Council to find the best way to manage road verges that is both good for wildflowers and cost effective. The idea is to cut the verge once or twice a year and use the cuttings to create biofuel. The Biomass Harvesting Pilot Project is an innovative and ground breaking trial, with biodiversity expertise from Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust.
Road verge FAQs
Why do road verges need to be cut?
The overriding priority for our road network is the safety of road users. This requires a safe pull-over zone and clear, unimpeded visibility of oncoming traffic on approach to tight bends and at junctions. In order to achieve and maintain this, local authorities acting as the local highways authority in each case undertake mowing of at least the carriageway edge on a regular timescale.
In Lincolnshire, the width of verge mown at the roadside away from junctions and bends is set by policy (not law) at 1.1m. This is deemed sufficient for a vehicle to pull over safely should it need to in an emergency and also provides a safe refuge for pedestrians and cyclists to get off road if required in rural locations where there aren't footways. Tall vegetation height might conceal hazards such as open cross drains and posts that drivers and cyclists need to see when deciding how to manoeuvre in an emergency situation.
The peak growth period of grasses tends to be from May-June. Broad-leaved, perennial, non-woody plants can continue to grow/re-grow and re-flower often until September or even October depending on weather conditions. We have found from surveys that typical roadside vegetation on more fertile roadside soils can approach 1.5m in maximum height when unmanaged. This, however, is restricted to the back verge due to management. Cutting therefore needs to be timed in order to maintain vegetation height below safety thresholds on key parts of the verge.
Grassland also relies on a sufficient level of disturbance to prevent it from developing over time into shrubs and trees. In the wild, grassland would be maintained in parts of our landscape by the grazing of wild herbivores. To substitute for this in the modern landscape, mowing is required; but with such little species-rich grassland left, timing is vital.
What time of year should the verges be cut?
The current mowing schedule undertaken by LCC on rural road verges involves 3 cuts per year. These are throughout May, from mid-June to mid-July and from early September to early October. It is often the case that this is supplemented by local landowners/land managers.
The Grass Cutting Programme for 2020/21 published by Lincolnshire County Council can be seen here. It lists the cutting dates for countywide verge mowing undertaken by LCC and which parish, city and borough councils cut the verges in their own urban areas.
The Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust continues to work with Lincolnshire County Council, other local authorities and larger landowners to identify opportunities to adjust verge management policy, especially in areas found to have the highest wildflower diversity value, to allow for later and less extensive mowing where this does not conflict with safety concerns. We advise that species-rich grassland is a priority for conservation nationally and locally due to the huge losses this habitat has suffered over the last 50 years. We also highlight that road verges should be envisaged as wildlife corridors and maintained in sympathy with wildlife wherever this is economically sustainable, practicable and safe to do so.
Grassland is a habitat that can be managed to allow for safety concerns and still provide a wealth of flora and fauna - not least our floral heritage and our productivity-boosting pollinators and crop pest predators. Research has shown that in the majority of cases, mowing twice annually with collection of the cuttings can deliver a net gain in biodiversity in roadside grassland. This is certainly true for less diverse verges, but for verges which already host much biodiversity, mowing is best left until late August/September and even then it is a good idea to leave sanctuary strips on rotation for invertebrates.
Who cuts my local verge?
The county council acting as your Local Highways Authority undertakes cyclical road verge management throughout the year on all rural roads. It’s worth noting that local landowners/land managers often cut adjacent/nearby verges in addition to LCC management in rural locations.
Within urban areas and inside 30mph zones, some parishes and boroughs undertake additional cuts. The Grass Cutting Programme for 2020/21 published by Lincolnshire County Council lists which parish, city and borough councils cut the verges in their own urban areas. You can download it here.
Who is responsible for my local verge?
In most cases the principal consideration is that the local highway authority has a duty of care to maintain the safety and usability of roads that are kept at public expense. These responsibilities are set out in the Highways Act 1980, which stipulates that if a highway agent can demonstrate that they made adequate provision for upkeep and safety as can be reasonably expected, a defence will be in place for any claims made against them.
This duty and the authority to maintain verges adequately for safety reasons has given rise to verge management policies. Generally, unless the road is a motorway or trunk A-road, the metalled surface of the carriageway and the road verge are the responsibility of the local highways authority. Roadside drains, hedgerows and boundary trees are the responsibility of the adjacent landowner. Drains constructed as part of a modern road building project are however the responsibility of the local highways authority.
Detailed legal information concerning the ownership of road verges can be found here on the website of the Open Spaces Society.
I think my local verge is being wrongly cut/damaged. Whom should I contact?
The Highways Division of Lincolnshire County Council encourages the use of FixMyStreet to report issues concerning the public highway in Lincolnshire.
Use this link to report an issue to North Lincolnshire Council.
Use this link to report an issue to North-East Lincolnshire Council under ‘Trees and green spaces'.
If the verge is located within the curtilage of a town/village and/or it appears to have been managed differently from rural verges nearby, a local landowner or parish council contractor may be responsible.
How can I report fly tipping on a road verge?
Within Lincolnshire, fly-tipping needs to be reported at district/borough level. LCC is a waste disposal authority but the district and borough councils within Lincolnshire are the respective waste collection authorities. See this page on the LCC website to be directed to the appropriate web page in each case.
Use this link to report an issue to North Lincolnshire Council.
Use this link to report an issue to North-East Lincolnshire Council under ‘Street cleaning and nuisance behaviour’.
How are Roadside Nature Reserves managed?
Verges which are designated as Roadside Nature Reserves are managed in accordance with agreed plans which take account of wildlife needs and road safety.
Management is often carried out by local farmers when they are able to within certain time windows. Where verges are Sites of Special Scientific Interest, there are specific Natural England management agreements in place. In some years, the cut is earlier to manage the relative abundance of wildflowers in the long term. It is not always possible to leave sanctuary strips but the hedgerow base can act as a refuge in many cases.
What about hedgerows along a roadside verge? How are they managed?
For minimum effect on wildlife, hedgerows should only be trimmed once every 3 years at most, between mid-January and the end of February. Ideally they should only be trimmed on one side at a time and/or on alternate sides of the road so that not all cover is lost in one season. This benefits pollinators and wintering birds enormously.
Research has shown that more than twice the number of flowers and more than three times the amount of berries form on hedgerows which are cut every 3 years compared with those cut every year. We would encourage Lincolnshire’s landowners to feel proud of living hedgerows full of flowers and birdsong rather than neatness.
I want to help my local wildlife. Can I plant seeds and bulbs on a road verge?
No. Whilst wildflower seeds have their place, you can't be sure you won't be introducing a non-native species and disrupting the native flora that's already there. It's best to leave verges alone and let those native plants colonise naturally. That way, the verge will retain its local character which helps to make Lincolnshire's countryside so special.
If you want to create a wildflower patch in your own garden at home, you can find some helpful tips here, or if you have a bigger space you're wanting to turn wild check out our Wildflower Meadow Hub.
What are grips?
For safety reasons, surface water must be able to drain away rapidly from a surfaced carriageway during peak precipitation events. To enable this where road engineers deem this to be necessary, open cross drains known as ‘grips’ are scraped across the verge.
How can ditch clearance have an effect on roadside verges?
The time to clear ditches that does least damage to wildlife is October and November. However, wet conditions can mean that ditches are best managed in frozen conditions to avoid soil damage.
Ditch spoil and cut vegetation should not be left on the verge as this will smother and fertilise the verge leading to a loss of biodiversity. Only the tallest, most vigorous and competitive plants survive ditch spoil spreading which outcompete other species.
Amphibians are least affected between November and January; water voles are least affected in October and plants and invertebrates are least affected between September and February.
When work on a verge has to go ahead, what are you doing to mitigate its impact?
Utilities companies or the local highways authority itself will from time to time need to dig up sections of road verge. When this need arises, the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust is consulted by Lincolnshire County Council and given the opportunity to advise on ways in which verge damage can (in order of priority) be avoided, mitigated or restored. The Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust shares up-to-date maps with LCC which show the location and extent of designated roadsides. If any work is scheduled that appears to threaten these sites, a notification is automatically triggered and advice can be given.