A19 Roadside Improvement

Richard Stelling, Works Supervisor, Sir Robert McAlpine

Receiving the Monitoring, Maintenance and Management Award at the CIRIA BIG Awards in 2018 was a huge honour and surprise rolled into one.

The surprise came from the fact that merely three years ago on my first visit to one of our developing species rich grassland sites, all I could see was “a load of weeds and dead looking grass!” Remember the commonly accepted definition of a weed is –

Any wild plant that grows in an unwanted place

The concept of willingly supressing grass to allow “weeds” to flourish was completely foreign to me. “People don’t want to see these alien species on our beautiful, green highway verges – do they?”

Apparently, I was wrong (and not for the first time!). Our Ecological consultant, Paul Chester, has been the driving force behind a great deal of this work and was the first to highlight the potential we had to re-establish areas of Magnesian influenced grasslands of national importance located along our network.

So, where to start? It transpires some of the best ways to invigorate and promote species-rich grassland is to disturb the existing top layer and open the areas up to natural light. Our early attempts, where we retained individual trees and thorn species as “nesting habitats”, were viewed as unsuccessful. All they did was restrict light to open areas and provide us with further obstacles for machinery in the future – A challenging start! 

Taking this information on board along with other guidance received, we moved from partially manicured grass verges to creating swathes of large open scorched brown-looking ground – a huge step away from most people’s expectations, including mine. Furthermore, the suggestion to blanket spray herbicide to these areas still proves to be a step too far for my sensibilities.

In essence there was a lot of work involved in convincing colleagues, clients and also myself, in understanding the benefits of undertaking these works. Up until recently I had been engaged in night-time working over the summer period and as such never got to see the results of strimming large areas of grass with metal blades and hand-raking these into piles to form hibernacula.

Imagine my surprise when, whilst undertaking a walk through these plots in late July, my eyes started to pick out different colours and shapes amongst what was previously brown ground with a ruffled surface.

“What’s that purple thing over there (believing it was a bit of litter) and what’s that yellow stuff and that one that looks like a big daisy and is that butterfly blue?”

In an instant I went from being a gruff, old-school sceptic to an elated lover of species-rich grasslands, looking out upon a bed of Pyramidal, Hybrid and Twayblade Orchids alongside shafts of Yellow-wort and regiments of Oxeye Daisy. Yes this was it, my wildflower epiphany had occurred!

Find out more about the 2019 BIG Biodiversity Challenge.