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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

‘Roads’

Posted on June 29 2014 at 10:22:33 0 comments

Old road with flowers

Mary Green seeks flora and fauna along our roadsides.

Our goslings are doing well at Withybed, with three families thriving, and some of the ducklings are almost grown up. A pair of swans has bred nearby but we have lost sight of them and don’t know if the cygnets have survived.

Nearby are coot chicks. Thanks to Chriss and Mike for keeping me informed about them, and sending the lovely photos!

I recently led a Village Society walk round Alvechurch, looking at how common and sometimes uncommon flowers appear in the most ordinary places. We even ate wild strawberries on Alvechurch station!

Part of the walk involved looking at roadsides. At present roadsides are the most volatile of habitats for wildlife, the most susceptible to good or bad management by us humans. They are human-made, of course, but many are very old and they have always had an impact on the wildlife around us.

The pattern of old roads around here shows clearly how the original landscape was wooded. Many hedge-lines are the remnants of old woodland, and hedgerow trees are often old boundaries between land holdings or parishes.

Some have verges, others steeper banks, but nearly all are hedged. Some are slightly sunken from the land around them, the “hollow-ways” still seen in local names.

If you look at an old map, the “roads” are sometimes recognisable as modern roads, but some will now just be footpaths. A good example is the Salt Way from Alvechurch to Droitwich. It goes down what was Cobley Lane, now a footpath behind the Lewkner Almshouses.

It then goes through fields, crossing the later canal (in an aqueduct) and railway (soon to be by a bridge) and is clearly visible up the hill till it joins the road again at the top of Cobley Hill near the trig point.

Other ancient roads are Birches Lane (full of woodland plants like wood anemones and sweet woodruff) and the path from Withybed to Foxhill. The main road through Alvechurch is the old Birmingham-Pershore road: I mentioned last month its wonderful lines of old trees.

All our roads, ancient or modern, host wildlife. Importantly, they give a continuous belt of vegetation, which we now call wildlife corridors. If we just had our flowering plants in separate patches, the flowers and fungi would not spread well and the insects and birds find it harder to move between them.

Bees particularly do not fly in “bee-lines” from A to B, but follow lines of flowering plants. At one time railways gave good wildlife corridors too, but the tendency in recent years has been to cut down trees and vegetation near the line.

However, the modern motorway has proved good for wildlife. Many species that were less common following the demise of hay meadows have come back on to them: cowslips being a lovely example. There are banks of red campion and moon daisies and even orchids in some places.

Most motorways and bypasses have been planted with native trees, which are now grown big enough to flower and fruit. The ring roads around Redditch are wonderful wildlife corridors, especially for blossoming early trees – cherry plum, blackthorn, cherry and hawthorn in that order.

Motorway verges are relatively unspoilt by people, so an ideal place for flowers, insects and small mammals – and the hawks and other predators that feed on them.

The kestrel hovering over the motorway has become a common sight, and while writing this I paused to drive someone to the airport, and saw a red kite over the M42.

However, motorway roundabouts are not always allowed to thrive. Hopwood roundabout had gorgeous moon daisies this year, as always – they come there especially early. (Many motorway-side plants flower early: it must be warmer there.) But before they could reach their prime they were all mown down.

The pattern of older roads around here is not necessarily pedestrian-friendly. They were originally made for horse-drawn and pedestrian traffic, which can exist together, but their use for motor traffic doesn’t always leave room for people on foot, or for horses or cyclists for that matter.

The roads twist and turn following old boundaries, rarely going direct. The new roads do not follow old boundaries or go between settlements, so they seem to cut across the country landscape rather than go with it like the old ones.

The importance of the roadsides as wildlife corridors brings us to the question of how they are managed. The full cycle of wildlife only works if flowers are allowed to bloom and set seeds and fruit.

Where this happens they can be rich habitats. I have mentioned before that not far away (at Romsley for example) there are some protected verges with rare species. 

Nearer here, there are magnificent old trees and hedges. Unfortunately, in so many places the verges are cut back in the growing season so all that is left is grass and rough tough plants like dock and nettles.

Hedges are flailed so they can’t flower and fruit properly. Most of this destruction is unnecessary and is done in the name of “tidiness.”

I was recently re-reading the Alvechurch Design Statement, written over ten years ago and an excellent statement of what the village is like and how it should remain. It says that verges should not be cut in the spring and summer, to allow wildlife to flourish. I wish we had followed it!

There was a lovely (and sad) example in Alvechurch this year. The main Birmingham Road has a raised bank opposite the school. In early spring it was suddenly full of cowslips, because the down-slope hadn’t been mowed.

In May this was followed by a beautiful show of moon daisies. It was full of bees and other insects. Then it was suddenly mown down to a green-brown flatness.

We found on my walk in early June some great roadside plants. Near the station on a rather mucked-about (but not mown!) verge we saw white campion and bladder campion.

Chicory was coming up, and should be in its lovely blue flower by now. Wild carrot was also coming through. None of these are common round here.

This also reminds us that roadsides bring in unusual species, as do railways. On a road near the canal is a great specimen of alexanders, normally a seaside plant, which has now spread along the canal (where the CRT have inadvertently mown it down).

I once found pink centaury, a sand-dune plant, growing along the road in Sandhills Green. Perhaps the name Sandhills gives a clue to this.

All along our motorways and main roads you can see a little white-flowering plant called scurvy grass, originally a coastal plant used on ships to provide vitamins on long voyages. Foxgloves are common now in the banks, especially on Foxhill Lane, which is appropriate.

Coming out now are wild roses (pink dog roses and white field roses) and honeysuckle. These climbers have come up through the hedges in the spring so now they can seize the sunshine at the top of the hedge.

Musk mallow is another pretty plant of the summer, followed in some hedges by knapweed. There is even a plant that grows in farm gateways – pineapple weed (it has round yellow heads and if you crush it, it smells like pineapple).

And of course last year I found a spotted orchid on the roadside between Alvechurch and Barnt Green, where they didn’t mow one of the verges. I’m sure we could have more of these, as they grow in local pastureland (below Rowney Green, for example).

The “back” road between Alvechurch and Barnt Green through Sandhills Green is a lovely road with mature trees and spring bulbs, and good verges in the more open places.

In spring I walked down Scarfield Hill into Alvechurch. I noticed how well the sloping bank was flowering – slopes are harder to mow! It had bluebells and stitchwort, the less common yellow archangel, and masses of wood anemones – all old woodland flowers. This is clearly an old road with old trees and flowers.

Another sign of old woodland is bracken in the hedges. I noticed this especially in Foxhill Lane and at the top of Stoney Lane.  However, if you walk along the newer road from Alvechurch to Hopwood (which has a proper footpath) there aren’t so many flowering plants.

The Old Birmingham Road, though, has great old trees, blossoming hedges and some good banks of flowers. Unfortunately even here, some of the verges have been badly treated. This time it’s dredging out ditches and dumping the soil on the verge. This leads to verges with grass and nettles and not much else.

However, where this hasn’t happened there are some less common plants. In April there were swathes of the goldilocks buttercup. This is an early kind, recognisable by its feathery leaves and imperfect flowers. There were also bluebells and stitchwort and some wild garlic.

Even with the unpredictable mowing of vegetation, you can find amazing things in the road hedges. All the old herbs like woundwort, herb Bennet, herb Robert and celandine love them. You can find wild hops in Alvechurch!

Where there is habitation, there will also be naturalised garden flowers. Examples are red valerian in Alvechurch, yellow loosestrife on Cooper’s Hill and purple toadflax in Birches Lane (and along the railway near Redditch.)

There is even a road-hedge of goji berry near me. If we really looked after them, our roadsides would be wonderful!

Here is one of the poems I wrote to order in the Picnic in the Park. If you read last month’s Village, you’ll know what it’s about.

Black Poplar

For more than a century it guarded the boundary
Between the cricket and the Meadows. A tree
Among many others, ancient oak and ash,
It heard the crack of willow on leather
And the calls of children among the bluebells
One wild night it lost its footing and declared
Fallen like a giant beast over the stream
Taking the bridge with it. The parish lengthsman
Found it on his rounds next day, impassable.
No link between the picnics and the beer
The edges of the land blurred.
On the other side of the village, a gang of men
With chainsaws worked on the new railway.
So the village came together, as it does.
The chainsaw men crossed over to the poplar
Shaping it into pieces you could understand
Chaffinches and blackbirds fled, calling,
The woodpecker stopped his springtime drumming
As the monster machine spewed out tree dust
And twenty tons of wood were made naked to us.
In the mild air, the chainsaw men sat chatting
At ease, drinking tea, on pillows of woodchips.
So we built a new bridge, and the village joined itself up
And the birds came back, louder than ever.
We sit in the Meadows, hearing the church bells
Thinking maybe a wood sculpture,
Or a piece for kids to climb adventures on
Or just a home for hedgehogs, worms and fungi.
We touch it for luck on our way to the beer.


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