By John and Margaret Cooper.

On Monday 23rd March 2020, nine weeks ago, we started to “self-isolate” as over 70s in our tiny cottage in Norfolk.

During our lockdown we have taken most of our government-sanctioned daily exercise by strolling down a nearby narrow country lane. We have used these walks to observe plants and animals – which we dutifully record and often photograph.

Over the past few weeks it has been a delight to watch, day by day, the growth and development of wild plants along the edge of the lane and in the hedgerow. The initial changes were slow and subtle but impressive. White blackthorn blossoms were the first to appear in profusion, followed by young green leaves of hawthorn. As blackthorn flowers began to wither and fall, they were replaced by hawthorn blossom – traditionally white, but some tinged with pink.

Early hawthorn
Hawthorn – with pink flowers

Meanwhile, the low-growing plants in the roadside verges gradually changed in colour and appearance – white dead-nettle, pale blue flowers of a speedwell, lesser celandine, ground ivy and vivid-yellow dandelion predominated at first but these were gradually augmented by a range of other Compositae – groundsel, mayweed, hawksbit, hawkweed and various thistles.

Sow thistle

By far the most spectacular transformation of the lane however has been over the past two weeks as cow parsley has sprung to life, lining the hedgerows on both sides with its white draping of “Queen Anne’s lace”. In places joining the hawthorn in creating a wedding veil cascade of white from the top of a hedge to the road.

Enjoying and examining the parsley – before the cutting took place.
Before the grass cutting.

This sight has been a delight in itself but gave us even greater pleasure as the parsley flowers started to attract an increasingly large and diverse range of insects, including hoverflies, solitary bees, parasitic wasps and butterflies. A particular delight during the first week of May was to watch the numerous orange tip butterflies (Anthocharis cardamines) the males sporting brilliant orange patches on their forewings, the females looking initially very much like small white butterflies (Pieris rapae) but with tell-tale moss-green mottling on their underwings.

The peacock butterfly lays its eggs on stinging nettle but the adult butterflies still need to have access to common wayside flowers on which to feed on nectar
A male orange tip butterfly
Orange tip butterfly – female
Even flies are important pollinators. This one is on a magnificent dandelion flower
The comma butterfly, with its characteristic ragged wings, has expanded its range in recent years. It lays its eggs on nettle, elm and willow. The adult requires common wayside flowers on which to feed.
One of many species of hover fly that frequented the lane. All are important pollinators.
A bee, its body coated in pollen grains, feeds on a dandelion (a so-called “weed”).
Hedge mustard – one of a number of cruciferous plants on which the orange tip lays its eggs.

We observed courtship behaviour and, having noted the presence down the lane of hedge mustard, one of the main food-plants of the orange tip butterfly, and other cruciferous plants on which they sometimes feed, we were confidently anticipating orange tip larvae (caterpillars) a few days later.

On Thursday 14th May, however, everything changed. As we left our cottage and approached the lane we were confronted by a temporary warning sign saying “Grass Cutting”.

An initial excursion down the lane confirmed that all the grass and flowers had been cut down on one side of the lane. On the return journey walking back, 30 minutes later (after a wonderful session watching great tits going in and out of a nest-hole in a tree), we discovered that the other side of the lane had received similar attention and no tall grasses and wild flowers were still standing.

After the second cutting – both sides of the lane are devoid of flowers.

We were able to see and photograph the vehicle and a person before they moved off, presumably to do more cutting elsewhere.

The lane one week later – only dry grass and cut leaves where the parsley and other flowers once stood.

What a disappointing sequel to those weeks of pleasure we had had observing the succession of growth of so many wild plants and the appearance of such an array of different insects.

We are now asking ourselves “How can our local council justify spending time and rate-payers’ money cutting wild plants in a tiny lane in the Norfolk countryside when we are all in “lockdown?” At present everyone is facing difficulties on account of Covid-19 and we understand that all local government funding is limited, likely to result in a reduction of services.

And why cut now, in mid-May, when wild plants are at their best and when so many insects, most of them important pollinators, are active and breeding? Is such roadside “maintenance” just dictated by a date in a diary, probably computer-generated, or are any thinking human beings involved in the decision-making? If they are, why don’t they consider the environmental consequences of cutting at this time? Do they not consult appropriately knowledgeable or concerned local people for advice? The Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT), for example.  

Over the next few weeks we shall continue to walk along our little lane. We shall, as always, observe the natural history and record what we see. The damage to the plants on the verges is done – and this saddens us – but we can attempt to monitor regeneration of some of the flowers and, hopefully, note the return of certain insects. But we shall also send a link to this this blog to our local council (copied to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust), asking why, during this period of such greatly intensified public appreciation of the countryside, a more sensible approach did not prevail.

Margaret Cooper sitting on the edge of the lane in a spot where there is no hedge, so some parsley remains behind her (compare with earlier picture of John sitting in the same spot, enjoying and examining the parsley, before the cutting took place).
Our first dog (rock) rose flower. Appearing after the cutting, surviving in the hedgerow
but not along the verges.

What about where you live, fellow Armchair Naturalists? Is your council any more enlightened? Are its agents acting responsibly insofar as the cutting of roadside verges is concerned? Perhaps you should ask them and let us know on FFON how they respond. Good luck!

{Footnote. Now that the lockdown is relaxing, we note the increase in passing cars in the lane. As we step off the road on to the post-cut stubble we realise that rubbish including metal cans is now exposed and dogs are using the verge as a lavatory. We tread at our peril. Is it any wonder that each day we repeat our question “Where have all the flowers gone?”}

John and Margaret Cooper

27th May 2020

Comment from Graham Wellstead:

“I have virtually stopped at home since the lockdown, with an occasional drive out just to keep the car battery topped up. But today, because I had run out of food for the wild birds, I took as spin out to the local farm shop. As I was leaving the shop, a small car in front of me was attempting to turn right and join what is quite a busy road. Because of the roadside plants on the drivers left, she clearly could not see oncoming traffic. Because I am driving a big four wheel drive I could see cars coming. I was about to get out, to go forward and see the driver out, but too late – as I did so, she moved and her car was hit very hard and spun round almost certainly a right off. Apart from cuts, bruises and shock, both drivers were OK. Police attended, so as a witness I made good the opportunity to make the point as below.

This brought to mind “Where have all the flowers gone?” There is a case for the cutting of roadside verges, but, with the above in mind, only at junctions and points where visibility are impaired. To destroy the wild flowers on both side of a country lane through its entire length is pure vandalism. My local authority seem to be well aware of the value of verges and roundabouts. Most verges are left, Spring sees hosts of daffodils, and every suitable round- about is planted with a wide variety of wild flowers.”