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‘Managing the verges on Surrey’s roads’ by Jenny Desoutter

This article was first published in the winter 2020-21 issue of our magazine Surrey Voice.

This year, following discussions with Plantlife, Surrey County Council adopted a new policy on some roads, including the A24, of not mowing the full width of verges until September, but instead mowing only essential sightlines at junctions where visibility is affected. Not only does this new policy benefit wildlife but it is a well-established fact that beautiful surroundings enhance mood, leading to more relaxed behaviour and hence greater road safety. Much thought and care were put into this plan by SCC’s Helen Currie and staff, and the result repaid the effort by affording magnificent displays of wildflowers on verges throughout the summer, but with sightlines intelligently trimmed.

Surrey is unrivalled for its beauty and biodiversity. Indeed much of our visitor/tourism industry, as well as residents’ well-being, is underpinned by this. Not only is it our natural duty to protect these gifts, but it makes sense that all policy and planning build on and protect those natural qualities which enhance our wellbeing. And this plan does just that. Not only was driving the A24 between banks of flowers now a pleasure, but there was another safety benefit. Because tapering sightlines were mowed at entrances and exits, these focused attention on upcoming  hazards more directly and organically than a plethora of signs. In addition, all traffic whether motor, cycle or pedestrian now had a barrier to shield from oncoming headlights, enhancing vision and concentration – and therefore safety.

As I stopped to photograph the verges, my eye was caught by a newly emerged Meadow Brown fluttering among the daisies – only the second I’d seen this year. I glanced down at the sea of Dog Daisies around me. Wherever I looked, a host of insects were feeding on the golden centres. The sight brought home to me just what this change of policy means – leaving the flowers for invertebrates – for nature. I glanced down, and there was a Swollen-thighed beetle in classic pose on the egg-yolk yellow centre of a daisy. On another was a bee, there were several hoverflies, and nearby a tiny fly I could not possibly name. In just a minute, standing quite still in this fairyland of flowers, I counted over 20 insects without even trying: each one finding life and strength from the life of the flowers that this year, for the first time, had been spared. Tiny crickets, too, sprang about the understory of the sward, and lower still would be a myriad creeping things, living their lives unseen.

Hidden world

Among the brilliance of daisies and buttercups and sorrel, just below the surface I found cobalt speedwells, and the stunning magenta of a gem-like Grass Vetchling which used to be common, but has so often been mowed that it has almost attained rarity. I could happily have stayed all day exploring this hidden world, peopled by enigmatic insects and beautiful flowers. It was a world explored once long ago in childhood, a world of secret romance.

How wonderful it would be if this vision could be extended into every aspect of Surrey’s land management as policy. Surrey should not be famous just for breakneck hills for cyclists, or famous beauty spots, but for priceless biodiversity in every little bit of land we manage.

It’s more difficult at the moment to go away on holiday to those places we used to go. But perhaps instead, if we get down close and lose ourselves for an hour or two in the enchanted world of the flowers, we may find it just as relaxing: and almost certainly at least as therapeutic.

Well done to all involved in agreeing the strategy, and in planning the detail and its implementation. I hope the spirit of this change will be reflected in land management throughout Surrey and make our county’s roads, as they should be, as beautiful as the rest of our countryside, a pleasure to drive on and somewhere that promotes living in safety for both humans and other species.

Jenny Desoutter is a campaigner for biodiversity