Mabey on verges

This is a placeholder for a comment about maintaining agricultural landscapes – without and within cities. It’s from Richard Mabey’s Roadside Wildlife Book, pp 34-37.

Before formal verges existed, there was no problem. The land at the edge of a road was normally just part of the adjacent farmland, and was kept tidy because cattle were put out to graze on it. This, of course, is still done along many minor roads in upland Britain.

The vast new area of verge created along the Enclosure roads saw the advent of the ‘lengthsman’, a labourer responsible for the maintenance of the verges along a fixed length of highway. These he would cut meticulously with a hand scythe, sparing individual flowers and young seedling trees at his own discretion. If he had the necessary skills he might also deal with the hedging and ditching along the same length of road, scything in the summer and laying in the winter. Very little of this crop was wasted. The scythed grass was raked up for hay, and the hedge—trimmings used for firewood.

This gentle and discriminating cutting regime, allowing the herbage to grow naturally for much of the summer, produced a sward in which a multitude of flowering plants were able to flourish, bloom and set their seed.

Hand-scything (supplemented by cutting with haymowers] continued up until the end of the 1950s. By then the continued increase in the length of road needing maintenance and the mounting costs of hand cutting had made it uneconomical. Therefore when powerful chemical weedkillers became available the Highways Authorities were very quick to adopt them. They were a potentially cheaper and longer-lasting alternative to cutting.

There’s also this interesting observation made in passing on p37, but which underscores a lot of my thinking

There are a number of factors which have brought about this change in attitude. Most significant is probably the increasing realisation of what a crucial role verges play in our landscape Pattern. They are no less important than classic beauty spots lust because we tend to take them for granted.