What’s on the verge?

With traf­fic dip­ping to lev­els not seen since the mid-50s, Matt Gaw finds an unexpected ben­e­fit of these cur­rent times at the road­side

EADT Suffolk - - WILDLIFE - PHOTOS: Matt Gaw

The wind is build­ing, teas­ing the few thin clouds apart un­til they look like carded wool against the blue sky. I keep to the right, my feet scuff­ing in the dust and the grit of the lane, but there are few cars to worry about here. Lock­down has emp­tied the roads around this part of Suf­folk with traf­fic at its low­est lev­els since 1955.

No, to­day I’m stay­ing close to the verge for a very dif­fer­ent rea­son – to try and see wildlife. While many of the spe­cial places we usu­ally visit to ex­pe­ri­ence na­ture are closed or out of reach, the many miles of land that make up the county’s road verges re­main res­o­lutely open and, as I have re­cently found, full of wild won­ders.

I ad­mit, I had pre­vi­ously played lit­tle at­ten­tion to verges. They were a green haze half-seen from a car win­dow, ig­nored in the rush of an un­think­ing move­ment. Yet this habi­tat is as im­por­tant as it is over­looked. While the in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of farm­ing has seen Suf­folk lose more than

90 per cent of its species-rich grass­land since the 1930s (the fig­ure is around 97 per cent UK-wide) parts of this old coun­try of mead­ows and flower-stud­ded fields has man­aged to cling on. Wild­flow­ers, in ef­fect, hopped over fences, tip-toed through hedges and were car­ried on the breeze of our own mo­torised progress to grow on road­side verges. Ac­cord­ing to the wild plant con­ser­va­tion char­ity Plantlife, the UK’s 238,000

hectares of road­side verges (to put this into per­spec­tive, there are just 85,000 hectares of grass­land re­main­ing) sup­port more than 700 species of wild­flow­ers – 45 per cent of our to­tal flora – 100 of which are threat­ened with ex­tinc­tion.

The verge I am walk­ing along now is one of the 106 sites des­ig­nated as a Road­side Na­ture Re­serve by Suf­folk County Coun­cil, mean­ing it is care­fully man­aged to pro­tect the species that flour­ish here. For the past eight or nine weeks I have been vis­it­ing this 200 me­tre curve of wild­ness, along with many other stretches of verge within walk­ing and run­ning dis­tance of my Bury St Ed­munds home.

The cowslips that first caught my eye have gone over now, their yel­low petals browning and shrink­ing back to re­veal sta­mens that loll like the tongue of a pant­ing dog. The early pur­ple orchids are also dy­ing back, the soft­ness of their hot pink blooms now tis­sue-pa­per dry. But other species are hit­ting their peak. In the thicker grass closer to a hawthorn hedge, com­mon vetch scram­bles to be seen: its small pur­ple-pink flower pea-like and per­fect. Closer to the road, clumps of com­mon com­frey are also in flower, their bell-shaped blooms tolling silently in the wind. The colour of them is sim­ply in­cred­i­ble – a Por­tugese man o’ war pur­ple that pro­vides pain-re­lief rather than poi­son. For at least 2,000 years com­mon com­frey, also known as bruise wort, bone­set, knit­bone, knit back or, sim­ply, the heal­ing herb, was used ex­ter­nally to treat all man­ner of ail­ments. The name com­frey is it­self de­rived from the Latin con­fir­mare, mean­ing to join to­gether. Right now, it is just a sight for sore eyes.

I turn left and start to fol­low an­other verge where I’ve heard that pyra­mid orchids have been recorded, but it seems I’m too early. I stop and look at a poppy, petals blow­ing like wash­ing on a line, and think how in the fol­low­ing weeks, whether in a des­ig­nated road­side re­serve or in the many miles of verge else­where, there will be even

more colour – the ever-foam­ing spokes of cow pars­ley, ox-eye daisies, red cam­pion, blue hare­bell and (of course) more orchids. These are plants that are beau­ti­ful to look at, but which are also vi­tal sources of food for bees, but­ter­flies, birds, bats and bugs.

Take, for ex­am­ple, bird’s-foot­tre­foil, whose yel­low slip­per­shaped flow­ers are a com­mon sight on verges from May un­til Septem­ber. This one species of plant pro­vides food for 160 kinds of in­sect. In fact, just one hectare of road verge can pro­duce 60kg of nec­tar sugar – enough to sup­port more than 6 mil­lion bees. One of the things I first no­ticed dur­ing my lock­down walks was how the road­sides hummed with the sounds of bees and flies.

What’s more, the im­pact of Covid-19 could ac­tu­ally make these frag­ments of grass­land wilder still. As lo­cal au­thor­i­ties across the coun­try di­vert re­sources to front­line ser­vices, many verges are be­ing left un­cut, al­low­ing species that are of­ten de­stroyed in April and May mow­ings, to bloom for the first time in liv­ing me­mory. A cou­ple of weeks ago, I spoke to Dr Trevor Dines, a botan­i­cal spe­cial­ist at Plantlife, who said the char­ity was see­ing more peo­ple re­port­ing verges cov­ered in wild­flow­ers. In one case, 40 early pur­ple orchids were seen on just one small stretch of verge.

At a time when we need to find beauty in the small things, notic­ing the health of these wild places also im­pacts on our own well­be­ing. Re­search has shown us again and again that in­ter­ac­tions with the nat­u­ral world can change our bio­chem­istry, re­duc­ing stress hor­mones, in­creas­ing ben­e­fi­cial neu­ro­trans­mit­ter lev­els and boost­ing our im­mune sys­tems. Even the small­est glimpse of na­ture – a green roof, a lawn, wild­flow­ers on a verge – has been shown to im­prove the func­tion of the brain.

I know that, for me, these wild cor­ri­dors have cer­tainly pro­vided some re­lief, some calm in a time when all else seemed strange and re­stric­tive; the bloom­ing and dy­ing back a sign that the world was still turn­ing. Yes, it is true the road Covid-19 has put us on has seemed long and ar­du­ous, but at least, for the time-be­ing, it is a road that is fringed with flow­ers. N #There­With­You

ABOVE: Dog roses bloom by a Suf­folk road­side. LEFT: Com­mon com­frey, val­ued for its heal­ing prop­er­ties, blooms at one of the 106 sites des­ig­nated as Road­side Na­ture Re­serves by Suf­folk County Coun­cil.

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