The reference state for road verges is similar to that for semi-natural and species-rich hay meadow meadow vegetation, where grasses form less than 50% of the vegetation cover. Species such as bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), which has disappeared from many meadows as a consequence of nitrogenous fertiliser applications, can be abundant in the better road verges, which have no reason to be treated with fertilisers or pesticides. Interestingly, meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense) is now virtually restricted to road verges in Wales and rarely, if ever, seen in meadows or pastures.
In effect, these species-rich road verges are a window to the past, providing a glimpse of the flora that was present in the adjacent fields before they were agriculturally improved. These verges are increasingly important for pollinator populations as the vast majority of the wider countryside is now barren of flower-rich habitats. However, species-rich road verges are also relatively uncommon, for example, a survey of road verges in the north of Pembrokeshire found that, in August 2020, there was only one 50x10m stretch of flower-rich habitat available to pollinators in over 50km of road verge, the rest was either grass-dominated or had recently been cut. The survey also found that there were no flower-rich fields adjacent to the road verges. Against this background, it is no surprise that the pollinator populations in Wales are declining.
If the situation is to improve, we must address the management of our road verges. At present, many verges are first cut in May and then pretty much monthly thereafter until September. There is no good reason for this frequency and intensity of management, which prevents most plants from flowering and setting seed and results in grass-dominated habitats. Ideally, our road verges would be cut only once a year, in late August or September, which would allow the plants to flower and set seed and help the pollinator populations recover.