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Local councils need to look at cutting and mowing regimes for verges in order to help save important insect and flora populations



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Nature Notes correspondent Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop's Stortford...

Last week was National Insect Week and I organised a couple of events locally – a bat and moth walk on the Wednesday evening and then a moth night in Millennium Wood on the Friday until midnight.

Recently, I have noted on local Facebook sites that people are being very complimentary about the roadside verges along the Little Hadham bypass and how the wild flowers seem to be flourishing, which, of course, is excellent for insects, be they pollen feeders, such as many beetle species, or predators that hunt the pollen eaters, such as robber flies.

Uncut verge into Little Hadham (57514822)
Uncut verge into Little Hadham (57514822)

I also see locals complaining about overzealous grass cutting in parks and verges that do not really require such drastic action. An example from a couple of years ago where a whole stand of 70-plus bee orchids were gang mowed certainly raised many people's hackles.

Consequently, I thought I would delve deeper into roadside verges as an insect habitat and do a little research. With local councils struggling to balance the books, it would seem sensible if non-essential mowing and strimming were stopped, not only as it improves the biodiversity but also as a cost-cutting measure.

Roadside verges are good habitats for many species as there is a wide variety of grasses, plants and hedgerows. Many of these are the essential larval food plants for many insects, but they also act as a safe corridor for creatures to move from one habitat to another. They attract the whole spectrum of the food chain as we often see kestrels hovering over such verges. A falcon at the top of the chain whilst the small, seed-bearing grasses host micro moth caterpillars and offer seeds to rodents and birds such as goldfinches and yellowhammers.

Apis mellifera, western honeybee (57514865)
Apis mellifera, western honeybee (57514865)

It has been calculated that more than 700 species of our wild flora can be found in such habitats. Very rapidly, it becomes apparent that these areas are, indeed, vital to the sustained continuity of our wild flora and all the mammals, insects, arachnids and birds that rely upon the vegetation found within them.

I decided to investigate my local patch and, last Monday, began a roadside walk from Millfield Lane, Little Hadham, down the old A120 to the village traffic lights and then back up all the way to Tesco for a much-deserved coffee, before a wander back to the car via East Wood, Cradle End and Green Street. What I recorded certainly highlighted how vibrant the habitats were and the paucity of species in areas where strimming and gang mowing has taken place.

In Millfield Lane and Green Street, a one-metre swathe has been cut in places. This permits cars to pass safely with the drivers knowing they are on safe ground, not driving onto (and into) an overgrown ditch. Along the lane, huge numbers of umbellifers were in flower (hogweed, cow parsley, hedge parsley etc) upon which I found numerous pollen feeders such as Rutpela maculata (yellow and black longhorn beetle), more than five species of hoverfly, ladybird species and plenty of Oedemera nobilis (swollen-thighed beetle). Other plants also attracted bees such as Apis mellifera, Bombus lucorum, Bombus terrestris and Bombus pascuorum, as well as mining bee species such as Andrena chrysosceles, the hawthorn mining bee. I managed many photographs of these habitats whilst also noting plants such as black horehound, common agrimony, bladder campion, bristly oxtongue and common mallow.

Just to survey the 400 metres of Millfield Lane took more than 90 minutes, such was the variety of plants and insects. I arrived at the old A120 and headed down towards the school. More umbellifers on the verge with resident insects, particularly Episyrphus balteatus (the marmalade hoverfly), often seen upon field scabious. Here, the verge had been left all spring and summer and was no hindrance to pedestrians. Pleased to see it had not been cut back. On the other side, the top of the bank had been strimmed to just an inch of grass growth, therefore little to report apart from signs of rabbit and a pair of meadow brown butterflies resting on the dry cuttings. Here, the steep bank had been left and immediately I noted new species for the day, such as feverfew and bindweed, in flower and the insects were present, including a comma butterfly, newly emerged and in superb plumage.

Bladder campion (57514827)
Bladder campion (57514827)

I arrived at where Church End meets the road. Here, as elsewhere, the vegetation needs to be cut back to permit clear sight lines for traffic coming onto the busy road. This is vital, but, sadly, the whole verge was gang mowed all the way almost to Hadham Hall. Here I encountered no insects and am fairly sure this is not a public footpath. However, if pedestrians do use this verge for walking then, surely, just a single-width cut of the gang mower would suffice, leaving the rest undisturbed for nature. (I think this was a private contractor and not council cutting).

A little further on there has recently been some ground works, the grass removed and now just bare earth. What a missed opportunity: a 30g bag of wild flower seeds, specifically chosen to benefit bees and butterflies, could have been added as the earth was raked back flat. Not time consuming and little cost to the contractor. Indeed, this verge on the left-hand side as you head towards Stortford is an ideal habitat for a wild flower verge.

At the top of the hill, opposite Millfield Lane, I crossed over and again found myself recording flora and fauna. A red kite sauntered by, goldfinches sang and a yellowhammer chirped. In the verge, a large skipper butterfly nectared on bramble flowers, an Eristalis pertinax hoverfly fed on an oxeye daisy and, in the hedgerow, a whole nursery web of Pisaura mirabilis spiderlings; hundreds of them safe in their web, ready to disperse and become a predator of the habitat.

Comma (57514837)
Comma (57514837)

The pavement once again swapped sides at Hadham Hall and, not much further along, ironically, the hedgeside vegetation was so vigorous in its growth the whole pavement was blocked and I had to walk in the road. Not ideal. This happened on three occasions between the hall and Hadham End.

I approached the new bypass roundabout and here, as well as the local environs, plants and trees have been put in. The roundabout was ablaze with poppies and oxeye daisies whilst the outer perimeter is cut grass so that sight lines are maintained. Refreshing to see after the disappointment further down the road.

I crossed yet again and by the roundabout for the bypass down to Stansted Road was a whole host of new plants in the verge where, again, I was pleased to note just a sight line swathe had been cut. Purple toadflax, hairy St John's wort, black horehound, some lucerne that had self-seeded from the adjacent field where it was last year's crop and a patch of pale yellow-eyed grass, the latter a garden escape, I suspect. Tufted vetch, with its splendid purple/blue flowers, wound its way around grasses and low-hanging field maple branches. Right here, next to a busy roundabout, a whole food chain could be witnessed as a kestrel sat watching for a small rodent to make a move. A flesh fly species stood atop a hogweed flower where more Oedemera noblis beetles fed. One moment of gang mowing and the whole lot is gone.

Common carder bee upon black horehound (57514863)
Common carder bee upon black horehound (57514863)

A recent report from Kent Wildlife Trust, which has been monitoring insect decline, highlights a dramatic decrease in numbers. A dreadful fall of 60% of insect numbers since, horrifically, only 2004. This decline needs to be reversed and roadside verges and open park grassland could well be the easiest and cheapest method of tackling the decline. Less gang mowing and strimming. An area such as Stockmen Field at St Michael's Mead is a grassland area where many folk enjoy the outdoors, but does the whole area need to be a croquet pitch? Could not interesting, winding tracks be mowed through longer grass areas? These would still permit locals to enjoy walks with family and dogs whilst also enjoying the sight of wild flowers, insects and the corresponding bird and mammal populations that inhabit such areas.

I appreciate a compromise has to be reached and that certain areas, for outdoor recreation, need to be cut back, but not all of it. I urge local councils to look again at their cutting and mowing regime and address this issue to help save the insect and flora populations of the town. I, personally, would be very happy to be involved in survey work that may need to be carried out and am sure others would be eager to participate too.

A120 roundabout planting (57514859)
A120 roundabout planting (57514859)
Common mallow with Oedemera nobilis (57514841)
Common mallow with Oedemera nobilis (57514841)
Common poppy with resident Episyrphus balteatus hoverfly (57514844)
Common poppy with resident Episyrphus balteatus hoverfly (57514844)
Hairy St John's wort (57514851)
Hairy St John's wort (57514851)
Harlequin ladybird (57514853)
Harlequin ladybird (57514853)
Missed opportunity. After ground works, wild flower seeds could have been put in. (57514855)
Missed opportunity. After ground works, wild flower seeds could have been put in. (57514855)
Pisaura mirabilis spiderlings in their nursey web (57514857)
Pisaura mirabilis spiderlings in their nursey web (57514857)
Rutpela maculata upon briar rose (57514801)
Rutpela maculata upon briar rose (57514801)

Have you got photos from an event you'd like to see featured in the Indie? Email newsdesk@bishopsstortfordindependent.co.uk



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