The future of biodiversity in Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 20 August 2020
When it comes to increasing biodiversity and meeting 2030 emission targets, a bit of scruffiness can be a good thing. Andrew Griffiths investigates.
Outside New Mills Leisure Centre there is a steep bank that slopes down to the road. There is a silver birch growing and one or two other trees but it is mostly grass and usually kept nail-clipper short by the local authority gardeners. Due to Covid-19 and so many of the workforce being furloughed, it has been left to grow wild. Like many other roadside verges over the county and the country, it has thrown up a few surprises.
Opposite the steep bankside there is a converted mill-block of flats. Karen Rogers, a professional botanist, lives in one of the flats and has watched the development of this ‘pop up meadow’ with interest. She offered to show me round.
‘It just brings a bit of joy, doesn’t it? In a time when joy is limited.’ says Karen, as we contemplated the pleasing mix of grasses and splashes of wild flowers.
Karen is everything you want a professional botanist to be. The scientific names of all the plants and grasses trip easily from her tongue but the common names, many of which I remember from my childhood, sometimes take a little longer. Her quiet enthusiasm is infectious.
‘Although what you are looking at is a bank outside a leisure centre, from the species in here it strikes me that it is a remnant of an old wildflower meadow.’ says Karen.
Here is a list of some of those plants: red clover, lesser stitchwort, birds foot trefoil (both lesser and common), marsh bedstraw, native alchemilla, Meadow buttercup, creeping buttercup, ribwort plantain, Ox eye daisy, Black knapweed, one of the commoner orchids… there are no great rarities here but the joyous list goes on.
‘But it is the grasses more than anything that tell you you’ve got a meadow,’ says Karen. ‘The key ones are sweet vernal grass, this is what gives hay its sweet scent, and you’ve got red fescue - there are lots of bits and pieces in here that just make it nice to look at.’
I try to remember when this leisure centre was built - the 1980s I think, and who knows how this ground had been disturbed before that? It strikes me that what we’ve also got here is some seeds with a story: surviving this long, just waiting for their chance to burst forth.
‘Every time I hear the mower coming round I get really worried, I think ‘Oh no!’’ says Karen. In actual fact, they have only mowed a one metre strip beside the kerb so far, a safety consideration to ensure the road-users’ view isn’t obscured.
Earlier this year, New Mills Transition Group organised a town consultation to discover residents’ views on how the town might look in 2030 if we were to live a low carbon lifestyle and manage our towns in a more sympathetic way which would encourage nature to thrive. More ‘scruffiness’ was one change people wanted to see - public spaces less manicured and wild plants left to flourish.
For some, one positive outcome of the Covid-19 crisis has been a proof of this concept nationwide - council mowers up and down the country have spun to a halt which has allowed nature to thrive, and people who have been confined to their homes and immediate locale during lockdown have found themselves developing a new and meaningful relationship with the natural world as it manifests itself on their own doorstep.
This desire for more scruffiness does not have modish fashion at its base, but a contribution towards increasing biodiversity in publicly managed spaces which, as botanist Karen Rogers so simply demonstrated, we are often quite literally cutting off at its roots.
Biodiversity is the flip side of the carbon sequestration coin so important if we are to lessen the effects of climate change - increase one, the likelihood is you will increase the other; it’s a virtuous circle. How our local councils manage our public areas and roadside verges can make an important contribution - in fact it is so important it is written into the statute book by way of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. If you want to make your local councillor nervous, ask them what they are doing to fulfil their obligations regarding their biodiversity duties as detailed in this Act.
Conservation charity Plantlife has run a successful campaign this last year to raise awareness of roadside verges, and they present some impressive statistics that demonstrate how apparently small contributions, when totalled up, can make for one big difference. For example, add up the area of rural road verges in the UK and it is equivalent in area to our remaining lowland species-rich grassland. Given we have destroyed over 97% of our meadows since the 1930s, Plantlife tells us, it makes these verges potentially crucial habitats for our pollinating insects and other wildlife.
Tim Birch is Director of Nature Recovery at Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. He campaigns for the Trust’s aim to create a wilder Derbyshire. When I spoke to him, he revealed he is a convert to brambles and all the ‘scruffiness’ they bring.
‘I have been astonished this spring where brambles have emerged where I had not seen them before - the number of bees on brambles is incredible,’ says Tim. ‘And it is often where you will see barn owls and kestrels hunting. Small mammals need that cover, so that habitat attracts them, and then the bigger predators come looking for food.’
‘It is about changing people’s perceptions about untidiness, and bringing people with us. So when they see these spaces, they don’t seem untidy, they see that they are providing a really vital function for biodiversity, and rapidly declining insects and bees.’
Tim recently saw some drone camera footage that had been taken over the Peak District where he lives. It made him realise how important these roadside verges are in a heavily farmed area.
‘Those verges and those highways and that connectivity is often the only place in the whole landscape where you can actually get wild flowers,’ says Tim. ‘There is often no other opportunity for flowers to grow that the bees and other pollinating insects need.’
Tim sees these verges having a crucial role if we’re to achieve the conservationist’s Holy Grail for landscape scale recovery - ‘bigger, better, and more joined up’.
‘In an ideal situation, we could get to a position whereby we have a roadmap of roadside verges that, instead of connecting up towns, connects nature reserves and green spaces,’ he says.
‘That is the vision that we have got, and connectivity is going to be even more important as the climate crisis deepens, wildlife will need more space to move into to deal with climate change.’
Tim has no truck with councils which cut verges. ‘From a biodiversity point of view, it doesn’t make sense whatsoever. If we are serious about nature recovery networks, then roadside verges are a bit of a no-brainer in terms of things that councils can do relatively quickly.
‘You get into these discussions and people put up all these barriers about how complicated it is - it isn’t complicated, just stop doing it.’
It is tempting to think of this issue as being such a ‘no-brainer’, because surely it saves councils money, not having to cut verges? But when I spoke to Barry Lewis, Leader of Derbyshire County Council, he told me that things are not quite that simple. But he did also tell me that it is now Derbyshire County Council policy to let verges grow, and just cut back one metre on sightlines where needed for safety, as with my example outside the leisure centre at New Mills.
‘It is not as straightforward as it sounds because we work with districts and boroughs and they are often the contractors for us,’ says Barry. ‘It takes a bit of time for this to trickle down, old habits die hard. Also, a lot of parishes and villages are responsible for their own roadside verges.’
But it gets more complicated than that. The verges can’t just be left, they have to be cut at the right time of year (after flowering) then left a few days for the seedheads to fall (for next year’s growth) then the cuttings collected (so they don’t over-fertilise the soil). This is in effect management of long, thin strips of meadow. Combine this with the need to frequently cut the one metre strip for sightlines, and that ‘cheap option of just leaving it’ doesn’t seem so cheap.
‘It is proper meadow management,’ says Barry. ‘The kind of technology they have deployed down in Cornwall (as an example) is what amounts to a giant vacuum cleaner mounted to a tractor. This is something they had to make themselves. So we are looking at equipment options that allow us to do that safely - mow, first of all, then go back and collect the clippings days later.’
This all requires teaching council staff and contractors a whole new set of skills.
Talking to Barry - who describes himself as a ‘nature boy’ and who manages his own vineyard and meadows in the Amber Valley - suddenly all these barriers go up where before you saw only opportunities for an easy biodiversity ‘win’. Once again, I am reminded that when it comes to public policy, change does not happen with a clash of cymbals and a flash of light, but with the slow grinding of cogs.
But we are on a deadline to meet those emission targets for 2030 if we are to have any chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change. We can only hope three things - first, people in Barry’s position realise that and develop a greater sense of urgency. Second, that people like Tim continue to bash those cymbals together demanding change to encourage it, and third, people like Karen continue to carefully and methodically monitor their progress.
Karen, by the way, is putting together a full species list for the bankside next to the road outside the leisure centre in New Mills and is to present it to the local council, asking that it continue to be managed this way in future and the reasons why. The council isn’t going to know what has hit it - a very polite revolution.