Two of the biggest threats to North Yorkshire’s wild flowers are climate change and… tidy gardeners – that’s the view of a conservation charity.

Over-zealous grass cutters obsessed with pristine lawns have gone into overdrive on powerful ride-on mowers, transforming verges brimming with wild flowers like Lady’s mantle and agrimony into boring swards of grass of little interest to wildlife. It is just one of the growing threats facing our precious wild flowers according to a new book “Wild Flowers on the Edge”, published by conservation charity PLACE (People, Landscape and Cultural Environment Education and Research Centre).

Margaret Atherden inspecting a verge

Margaret Atherden inspecting a verge

Writers Margaret Atherden, from York, and Nan Sykes, who lives in Thornton Dale, have been surveying the county’s roadside verges since the 1980s, colour coding them from red (high plant richness) to mauve (moorland verges with little botanical interest due to grazing).

Their fieldwork has led to the creation 170 ‘special interest verges’ in the North York Moors, whilst elsewhere their surveys have encompassed the Vale of Pickering, Howardian Hills, northern Wolds and the Yorkshire Dales. They believe that roadside verges should be treated like a huge national nature reserve. At their most vibrant they support an astonishing array of plant and animal life.

But they warn that change is coming, as a warming climate is likely to see some species die out such as cloudberry, chickweed wintergreen and globeflower, while more ‘southerly’ species continue to thrive, including white bryony, bee orchid and pepper saxifrage.

Margaret Atherden, who is also Chief Executive of PLACE, based at York St John University, explained, “For many car drivers roadside verges are just a passing blur, but for nature they are sanctuaries, a green corridor linking grassland, woods and wetlands. That makes them hugely important. The use of ride-on mowers has led some gardeners to dramatically extend their grass cutting and more than once we have seen rich verges ruined by people who probably think they are improving the environment.”

North Yorkshire has six-thoudand miles of roads, most fringed by verges, and common plants include the tall and aromatic mugwort, whilst amongst the rarities are bird’s-eye primrose and baneberry. The book is the distilled knowledge of their prodigious effort to record plant life, complete with an overview of what nature lovers can find living on the edge, together with culinary and medicinal uses of some plants, and how people can get involved in recording and protecting vulnerable verges.

Mrs Atherden continued, “The importance of verges for biodiversity is being more widely understood, which is timely, because so much has already been lost. Culprits include chemical-based farming, together with the liberal use of insecticides and the obsession with garden tidiness. We wanted to write this book to pass on our love and appreciation of wild flowers to the next generation. In the 1960s American conservationist Rachel Carson warned of the prospect of a silent spring without bird song. It is now time to highlight the equalling appalling prospect of a countryside devoid of wildflowers.”

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