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Dales council in verge mowing row

Friday 09 June 2006

Our countryside commentator John Sheard praises the nature havens of our roadside verges - and laments that fact that Craven District seems to be cutting them back before they reach their peak

IT IS difficult for me to remember when I first reported a row over Britain's glorious roadside verges but it happened in Lincolnshire when I was an ambitious young reporter, which dates it to circa 1959/60.

Those we the days when industrial chemists were national heroes, before we realised that pesticides like DDT were poisoning the planet. And to save themselves a lot of time, labour and money, the council in the Grantham area had taken to keeping the "weeds" of its roadside verges under control by spraying mile and miles of them with powerful herbicides.

Nature uncut
Nature uncut. Photo: John Sheard

This killed not only millions of plants but destroyed the habitat for untold numbers of birds, small mammals, insects and poisoned the water in ditches where frogs, toads and even the odd newt lived. Half a century ago, the conservation movement was in its labour pains - no-one had even heard of the word "ecology" - but miles of dying verges upset a lot of people and the story I wrote was well received (except, of course, by the council).

Fifty years later, you would think we have learned our lesson. But this week, a row erupted between Craven District Council here in the Dales and the local branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). The bone of contention: widespread mowing of roadside verges in May and June, the peak breeding time for birds, plants and insects.

Admittedly, Craven DC workmen are not using poisonous sprays - they were banned long since - but never-the-less, they are inflicting huge damage on one of the glories of the English countryside. And this in an areas which makes much of its income by bringing in tourists to marvel at our wonderful countryside.

This so upset the Craven branch of the CPRE that they wrote the following letter to the council (see News, Monday): "Why does Craven District Council not care about the special flowers growing in the Dales? Every year we send requests for the verges to be cut later.

"Every year the Highways Department and the council show that they do not consider the Dales as a special place. The flowers are cut down before having chance to reseed and the birds and small creatures have their young killed. If Cumbria can plan the cutting properly, why does Craven show so little respect for our wonderful Yorkshire countryside and its wildlife?

There is an even odder aspect to this row because the Yorkshire Dales National Park, which covers large areas of Craven, actually pays grants to some farmers to allow the growth of wild flowers in hedgerows and hay meadows.

And one of their top ecologists, Dr TimThom, the national park's senior wildlife conservation officer, says that no cutting should take place between mid-May and mid-June to protect wildlife and preserve the long-term future of our roadside verges. Research suggests that heavy mowing in that period is causing them to be dominated by rank scrub, he says, rather than the glorious display of Hawthorn and cow parsley shown in my photograph.

However, here I have a confession to make. This photograph, taken on Wednesday, is a fake. The scene is real but this wonderful display of the sort of verges I remember as a child was not taken by the roadside. It is, in fact, a verge of the Leeds-Liverpool canal. British Waterways allow their verges to flourish. Perhaps, next year, Craven council will take the same decision.

Your views:

  • I suppose that mowing those roads that carry a significant amount of traffic is justified for visibility and safety's sake, but I can see no point in mowing the verges of many of our country lanes which carry only a few vehicles per hour.

    This not only ruins the varied collection of wild flowers which thrive there but it also wastes council tax money on an unnecessary and, in my opinion, objectionable act.

    There are many walkers in the spring and summer who come armed with cameras in order to take photographs of the prettier and rarer types of plant that adorn the verges of our lanes.

    Anthony Harrison - West Scrafton

  • What is the point of mowing verges in the first place?

    Is it to "smarten" and homogenize the countryside so that it looks "civilised" and manicured? Just leave them.

    Sarah Aynesworth - Burnsall

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