Fiona Danks, Wild Oxfordshire Trustee
What image does the word “grassland” bring to your mind? A pristine green lawn, smooth as a billiard table? A meadow of long and varied grasses and colourful wildflowers, buzzing with insect life? Or a species-rich chalk grassland, colourful as a patchwork quilt? Since the 1930’s 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost. Unimproved grassland managed by grazing or cutting for hay is a vital habitat for numerous species.
Most grasslands we come across in our everyday lives, in gardens, parks, recreation areas and along road verges, are species-poor and mown regularly throughout the growing season. They may look neat, tidy and very green, but they are a wildlife desert. But what if a different approach was taken, with less frequent mowing, giving whatever species are present a chance to flower and set seed, providing food for invertebrates, small mammals and birds.
Last year we trialled “No Mow May” in our garden, as encouraged by charity Plantlife (https://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/discover-wild-plants-nature/no-mow-may). It was a joy to see a varied and colourful sward including buttercups, daisies, cowslips, dandelions, selfheal, dove’s foot cranesbill, chickweed and germander speedwell, and a bit later ox eye daisies and yarrow. Some people may view this as lazy gardening but in fact it’s a positive step towards better grassland management.
Manicured lawns need irrigation, weed control, fertiliser and fuel for the lawnmower, all of which have an environmental impact. A more relaxed mowing regime leads to more biodiversity andbetter drought resistance. It will reduce carbon emissions, save money and time, reduce inputs and be more climate resilient. So how can gardens, parks and road verges be better managed for wildlife?
Gardens and parks
Imagine if more relaxed grassland management became the norm, creating a network of beautiful informal gardens and parks buzzing with life, bringing wildlife to people’s doorsteps. So where do you start? In the first instance let the grass grow and see what happens. Many garden lawns and amenity grasslands are dominated by perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne), but let the lawn grow to discover if other species are present. The grass will need cutting at least once a year, probably in September once the grasses and flowers have set seed. Set the mower on a high setting and leave the cuttings in situ for a while so the seeds drop into the sward. Then collect the cuttings and remove from the area; this reduces fertility, creating more suitable conditions for delicate species to thrive. Grass cutting options can be combined, with areas designated for meadow, pathways to explore, shorter areas for sitting or picnicking, and a short border around the edge can help to create a certain tidiness.
If very few species emerge, the diversity can be increased in various ways:
Improving biodiversity of road verges
While waiting at the top of a slip road off the A34 west of Oxford, I have often admired a verge crowded withorchids and other flower species. According to a study published by the University of Exeter in 2021, road verges cover 1.2% of Britain, accounting for almost 1,000 square miles. Imagine if they were managed more sympathetically to become a countrywide network of species rich grasslands.Many road verges are mown regularly and althoughothers are cut infrequently, the arisings are usually left in situ so they enrich the soil each year, giving the more aggressive and competitive species an advantage. However, some local authorities are adopting a more enlightened approach, seeing the benefits of reducing mowing to benefit biodiversity, cut carbon emissions and save money. Removing cuttings consistently will reduce the management burden over time by favouring the lower growing less aggressive plants. The best verge habitats tend to be wider verges on roads that aren’t too busy or fast. There can also be opportunities to create species rich grassland from scratch on new roads by seeding an appropriate seed mix into a thin layer of sub-soil.
Some local councils are beginning to adopt a more sympathetic approach. Oxford City Council has changed the way it manages verges, only cutting in one metre swathes where road visibility is a problem (www.oxford.gov.uk/news/article/1944/city_council_reduces_grass_verge_cutting_to_help_wildflowers_bees_and_butterflies).
The West Berkshire Wild Verges Project (www.bbowt.org.uk/west-berkshire-wild-verges) is a partnership between the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust and West Berkshire Council. Initial monitoring identifies species compositions which helps to determine a suitable cutting regime for each verge. The scheme involves local communities and is being carefully monitored. Perhaps more local councils could be encouraged to adopt similar schemes.
An increasing number of local environment groups are wanting to see better road verge management in their area, and they can play a key role in highlighting the potential of their localverges. Plantlife offers advice and support (https://plantlife.love-wildflowers.org.uk/roadvergecampaign) and has a helpful Facebook group Flowers on Roadside Verges
Links to resources for better habitat management can be found in our guidance section.