With the success of Plantlife’s rural road-verge campaign for more sympathetic vegetation management (100,000+ signed to the petition) https://plantlife.love-wildflowers.org.uk/roadvergecampaign and their excellent guidelines https://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/our-work/publications/road-verge-management-guide you might be wondering why it doesn’t just happen, after all it seems such an obvious thing to do and there are no down-sides, right?
Wrong, unfortunately, there are still large numbers of people complaining about the weeds/the grass not being cut and it looking a ‘mess’ particularly in urban areas and that makes a difference; scroll below the article to see comments https://news.dorsetcouncil.gov.uk/2019/06/17/our-roadside-verges-a-fine-balance-to-strike/
A good summary of the problems that councils have is here, https://connectingfornature.wordpress.com/2020/05/27/nomowmay-a-discourse-on-the-complexities-of-local-authority-grassland-management/ and in summary it is essentially no money, no time, the wrong equipment, and what do we do with the long grass when we do cut it?
In Middlesbrough the council was proposing to save money this year (£60k?) simply by changing the interval time between cuts in urban areas from every 11-13 days to every 13–15 days. This would mean seasonal staff don’t need to be hired in summer and the grass is cut 11 times a year rather than 13. It was purely a way to save money, because government cut-backs have been particularly severe for the area, but any flowering plants get an extra 2-4 days to bloom so there are small biodiversity gains: It can also look ‘messier’ (I use ‘more relaxed’ as a description, but then I prefer it).
Ten years or so ago the local ecologist at Darlington Council was able to instigate long grass areas inter-spaced with regularly mown paths and larger mown play areas because a local farmer was willing to cut the long grass at the end of the summer, make hay with it, and then cart it away.
And that is the crux of the problem with long grass…it must be taken away when cut, and almost all Councils don’t have the equipment to do that.
Dorset Council is one exception and they have been using cut and remove mowers that cost around £35 to £40k (see http://www.grilloagrigarden.co.uk/fd2200_4wd ) and the council state this type of mowing is of value particularly in urban areas where they have in places been able to reduce the number of cuts from 7 times a year to 3 times a year. The reason – continually removing the cuttings lowers the fertility of the soil; vegetation grows more slowly in poor soil and so it needs cutting less often. As it happens, low fertility soil is just what is needed for growing native grassland wildflowers. For once a win:win situation, the council needs to cut the grass less frequently so it saves money every year and residents get a more biodiverse local environment. An illustrated .pdf from Dorset County Council Environmental Advice Team explaining this is here https://butterfly-conservation.org/sites/default/files/2019-10/Giles%20Nicholson%20Dorset%20Council%20-%20Persuading%20decison%20makers%20to%20manage%20verges%20for%20ecology.pdf Another added bonus is that longer grass grows deeper roots, enabling it to cope better and stay greener in drought events.
The cut grass that is collected can be used either in making compost (though this may have a cost associated with it if waste disposal is carried out by a private company) or to use in prototype electricity or heat generation. Also, if timed correctly, cut grass from species-rich road verges can be used as a seed source to create new road verges.
The best option is to think about management at the planning stage so that each new road verge created uses low fertility soil (sub-soil) and if the soil is seeded with green hay from local heritage grassland habitats then local cultural heritage and biodiversity can be celebrated as well as money saved. The fact that landscape architects, urban planners, and elected councillors have not been doing this speaks volumes on how poor their understanding of long-term green-space maintenance costs, especially given road verges have at least a 50-year lifespan.