Down the line
With the gradual loss, since the 2nd World War, of the 'linesmen' who had responsibility for the state of hedgerows, ditches and verges of an area and were the last exponents of many traditional skills, our road verges have become gradually poorer in the variety of plants they support. Weeds tolerant of high levels of nutrients in the soil have flourished, encouraged not just by vehicle emissions but by the type of verge maintenance which superseded the traditional 'linesman'. Cutting by mowing and latterly with flails, when cut vegetation was allowed to lie uncleared, made ground suitable for the Nettles, Docks and Ragwort which are now the dominant large herbs of many previously varied and well-managed verges. Ironically, to remove such vigorous plants a more frequent cut would have been needed, making things worse. At the other extreme, some ‘protected verges’ were not cut at all and scrubbed over rapidly. Such situations were often further compounded through lack of understanding by local authorities and naturalists alike of the factors involved. Except for the widespread adoption of 'outsourcing' for labour and machines and the general cessation of spraying outside urban areas this basic system of road verge management seems to have continued largely unchanged over much of the country for at least fifty years.
In 1969 a symposium hosted by ITE Monkswood was held to discuss the problem and provide advice to local authorities. Both the historic resonances and current uses of road verges were considered and a strategy was formulated aimed at the conservation of particularly rich verges. County and District Surveyors were advised to cooperate with the recently established local Wildlife Trusts in the compilation of lists of suitable verges for special treatment as 'protected verges'. Over the next several years this was attempted with varying degrees of success around the country.
Way’s County lists
A report compiled by Dr J.M. Way of this Society published in 1974 lists, by county, all protected verges arranged upto May 1974 by cooperation between local centres of natural history expertise and highways authorities. The list of counties covers England, Wales and southern Scotland with most having only a few sites but with six figure grid references and those species for which they were thought notable indicated.
There is an opportunity, in each county for which there is data, to check these sites from 45 years ago and find out how they have fared over the years. No doubt many will have lost their defined interest, others may still persist, but in most cases it will be possible to deduce reasons for their present state. Histories may be available documenting triumphs and disasters, from local sources like natural history societies, wildlife trusts and the memories of our members, and these would further inform us about common experiences of verge management around the country at county level.