Call to reconsider council cutting of Lochaber’s vital wildflower verges

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In a special article this week for the Lochaber Times, Dr Jon Mercer, chairman of Lochaber Biodiversity Action Plan Group, writes about the importance of local wildflower verges.

In the Highlands, we often believe we have been sheltered from a loss of biodiversity seen elsewhere in the country. Unfortunately, in relation to plants, this is not always the case.

Nationally, we have seen a massive 97 per cent reduction in wildflower meadows over the past 50 or so years. Work on monitoring the remaining meadows in our own area suggests that a similar decline may well have occurred here.

This has happened mainly through changes in agricultural practice, with changes in grazing regimes, improvement of grassland leys and a change to silage as well as losses through development and neglect of crofting land.

With one or two notable exceptions, the best place to see meadow flowers these days is on the sides of our roads and canals, where they are left largely
undisturbed.

There are many benefits to maintaining wildflower verges, aside from the obvious appeal of aesthetic enjoyment that might brighten many a car journey.

These plants support a wealth of invertebrates from butterflies and moths to beetles and bees. Many species, not just bees, act as pollinators for crops and fruit trees.

Verges act as a reservoir for predators that feed on aphids and other pests that attack crops such as potatoes. A well-vegetated roadside also provides a wildlife corridor in which small mammals, reptiles and amphibia can live, and through which other creatures such as hedgehogs, hare and deer can pass.

They also offer a valuable food source for both seed- and insect-eating birds. Sadly, if verges are cut early in the year and not allowed to grow, none of these benefits is realised.

There are some fantastic examples of herb-rich verges in Lochaber. Orchids, ox-eye daisies, knapweeds and many other flowers provide a wealth of colour and diversity throughout the spring, summer and early autumn.

In many places, plants such as yellow rattle suppress the development of
rank grasses.

Kidney vetch grows along the A86, and the A830 has a wonderful display of northern marsh orchid between Corpach and the High School.

The verges along the A884 towards Lochaline support melancholy thistle and butterfly orchids, while the A82 south sports rich splashes of wood
anemones and wood cranesbill.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency to tidy even these spectacular stretches, particularly around our settlements. Is this really necessary?

Typical maintenance regimes involve cutting the verges and trimming roadside shrubs once or twice a year and are carried out by BEAR Scotland on the trunk roads and Highland Council on all other roads.

These are often timed for convenience rather than taking account of flowering periods and wildlife. Cutting invariably takes place in the summer months.

If wildflower verges flourish without cutting and plants allowed to set seed, then the biodiversity of these oases is preserved. If cutting must be done, then this can take place in autumn after the vegetation has started to die back.

In reality, many of our local verges will be naturally grazed back by sheep and deer over the winter, making this unnecessary. Obviously, there are areas around road junctions and other blind spots where grass-cutting is necessary for safety reasons.

If other parts of the verges are left, however, there will be more resources available for keeping these clear. Similarly, a high cut to prevent the
development of scrub may be necessary every few years.

There is an obvious saving to be made in maintenance costs overall, particularly given the length of unpopulated roads within our region.

Wildflower verges provide colour, further enhance the beauty of the area and give a boost to biodiversity. Why not reconsider verge-cutting now? What about it, councillors?