Suffolk: Council at the cutting edge of conserving our roadside riches

RNR cut and collect, Sue Hooton

RNR cut and collect, Sue Hooton - Credit: contributed

Suffolk’s roadside nature reserves are often overlooked by motorists as they speed by, but John Grant finds that the county’s main local authority certainly does not ignore them.

Raking Wangford cut and collect, Sue Hooton

Raking Wangford cut and collect, Sue Hooton - Credit: contributed

Most council cuts are pretty unpopular but there is one kind that benefits everyone by giving a wealth of wildlife the chance to benefit and delight in equal measure.

Suffolk’s impressive chain of roadside nature reserves that border many miles of routes throughout the county – homes to some increasingly rare plants, invertebrates, mammals and birds – need careful management if the countless species they support are to thrive and survive.

The roadside nature reserves are maintained by Suffolk County Council as part of an innovative partnership scheme with several other partners, but they do not look after themselves. They would become choked by common, dominant plant species – to the detriment of rarer, less rampant species – if they were left to their own devices, to say nothing of the traffic hazards that might arise.

So they are cut – regularly in sensitive, ecologically viable regimes by expert contractors. The council has recently finished a round of cuts that has been aimed at conserving and enhancing Suffolk’s important population of one of Britain’s scarcest plants, the sulphur clover.

Some people may look on in surprise and perhaps even horror as roadside verges are cut, unaware of the underlying reasons why, but, as the council’s senior ecologist Sue Hooton pointed out, the cutting regimes are essential if as wide a range of wildlife as possible is to be allowed to flourish.

Sulphur clover was a classic example, she said. Most of the surviving plants of the species were found in Suffolk and Essex, where the species had been “all but banished to roadside verges” and the habitat was vital to its survival.

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“Over the years, Suffolk County Council ecologists have fine-tuned the cutting regime for sulphur clover roadside nature reserves and the majority of these now receive two cuts each year.

“The first cut is carried out in April to knock back competing vegetation and allow the sulphur clover to flower in profusion and the second cut is in September, along with most other roadside nature reserves in the county,” said Mrs Hooton.

“It is important to knock back the cow parsley and other taller grasses to ensure the sulphur clover can flower later in the season. As this species is found growing in boulder clay grassland, cowslips are often present on the roadside nature reserves that are scheduled for an early cut. These do get mown in the process but usually flower again within weeks and are much more common than sulphur clover.”

Eleven reserves were cut during April to help the species. “Being a pioneer species, sulphur clover and other scarce species exploited this habitat in the past although the practice of flail mowing has led to increases in dominant grasses on dry verges,” said Mrs Hooton.

“On damp verges, rotting cuttings enrich the soil, encouraging nettles, thistles, docks and cow parsley, requiring more cutting, compounding the problem and reducing diversity.”

The status of sulphur clover in the county was examined by leading botanist Martin Sandford, author of the highly acclaimed book Suffolk Flora.

“Martin notes how sulphur clover was once plentiful but has now declined to 195 out of 1,089 tetrads in the county,” said Mrs Hooton. “He notes most remaining sites are narrow roadside verges, threatened by ‘on the one hand scrub encroachment, fertiliser run-off and nutrient enrichment, and on the other by traffic damage’.

“He acknowledges the protection afforded by roadside nature reserves but extra cutting is needed to reduce competition from increased growth of rank grasses, whose growing season is extended by warmer winters,” she said.

Survey data collected last summer by Suffolk botanists Dennis and Anne Kell showed that plant communities were different within roadside nature reserves, being more species-rich with good biological diversity and nationally scarce species, such as sulphur clover, and are surviving far better within such reserves, Mrs Hooton added.

Suffolk has more than 4,000 miles of roads, 80% of which are classed as rural. That is a clear sign of the amount of potentially wildlife-rich habitat that exists and, crucially, the amount of “corridor” habitat there is in the county as connectivity between habitats is now seen to be vitally important for the mobility of species and the expansion of their ranges.

There are almost 100 stretches of Suffolk verge designated as roadside nature reserves – 34 of them solely for sulphur clover or with other specified plants.

The principal difference in the management of verges within and outside roadside nature reserves was cutting, said Mrs Hooton.

“Outside roadside nature reserves the combination of the timing of cuts and lack of removal of cuttings favours plant communities that are less diverse and dominated by certain species. Coarse grasses observed in the Kells’ survey, such as false oat grass and tall fescue grow from the base and exploit habitats managed in this way, quickly spreading to form rank vegetation.

“The removal of cuttings increased diversity, although cuttings did not appear to affect nutrient balance in soils, but the physical process of removal promoted species richness and prevented smothering frail species.

“This highlights the importance of roadside verges for wild flowers and sulphur clover in particular. However, it is only through identification and careful management of these sites that their floristic diversity can be maintained. Of significance is the need to remove the cuttings after mowing to prevent smothering by decaying vegetation and remove nutrients from the site, both of which encourage rank vegetation of limited ecological value,” she said.

“The importance of collecting grass cuttings after the autumn cut is accepted by Suffolk County Council although practicalities, safety and budgetary constraints mean this is not carried out on all roadside nature reserves.

“Where it is safe for voluntary wardens to rake up grass cuttings, the council supports this activity, and encourages local people to assist with this important management task.

“Where the roadside nature reserve site risk assessment indicates that it is unsafe for volunteers to carry out removal of cuttings, this practice is undertaken by highways contractors when resources allow. However, all roadside nature reserves benefit from local eyes and ears and many need a voluntary warden, even if practical management work is not considered safe for volunteers.

“It would be great to have a local volunteer for every roadside reserve but we have not got complete coverage.

“It is not a very onerous task - the volunteers do not even have to get out of their car because if they see anything of concern as they go past, such as fly-tipping or damage to plants or the designation posts, they can tell us.”

Suffolk’s roadside nature reserves are a source of pride for the county’s conservationists, and not just because they are so important for a wealth of wildlife species.

There is pride, too, in the fact that Suffolk was one of the first in Britain to realise the importance of this previously somewhat unappreciated abundance of habitat.

The current set-up involving 98 such reserves has its origins several decades ago when the late, great, Suffolk naturalist and Suffolk Wildlife Trust stalwart Peter Lawson championed the cause.

In its early days the scheme was run by the trust in liaison with the county highways department but although Suffolk County Council took over responsibility in 1991 it remains a partnership scheme involving the authority, its expert contractors, parish councils and volunteers.

Some of the reserves have legal protection, being Sites of Special Scientific Interest, or their plants are protected by the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, while most others have County Wildlife Site (CWS) status.

The CWS project is a partnership involving the county council, Suffolk Wildlife Trust, the Suffolk Biological Records Centre and Natural England.

According to the latest Department of Transport figures, Suffolk has 4,334.6 miles of roads, with 80% being classified as rural.

In total, the UK has an estimated 245,400 miles of roads and last year the conservation charity Plantlife estimated that there were 238,000 hectares of roadside verge in Britain, containing two-thirds of the native plants that are to be found in Britain.

That being the case, it is easy to see why such verges, especially those with designation as roadside nature reserves, are held in such reverence by conservationists.

And it is also easy to appreciate why managing and caring for them with sensitive, individually planned and executed cutting regimes is so important.

Further information about Suffolk’s roadside nature reserves and how volunteers can help them can contact Mrs Hooton at or visit