Highways England is driving a new initiative which will have wide-reaching benefits for the environment and biodiversity – and the answer lies in the soil.
The company has announced a step change in the way it improves roads, which will breathe new life and colour into the verges and land around the country’s motorways and major roads – a policy which will cover hundreds of miles in the second road investment period.
The key is creating the type of soils on the verges and roadsides which encourage the growth of wildflowers. More fertile areas with lots of topsoil - rich in potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen - favour aggressive grasses, dock and nettle, which are all fast-growing plants that can out-compete delicate wildflowers for water, nutrients, space and light.
On all major schemes, contractors are now being instructed to follow a new Low Nutrient Grasslands policy aimed at keeping away the ‘bullying’ plant species which love high nutrient soil, and allowing wildflowers to thrive, creating vital habitat for insects and other wildlife.
Highways England Environmental Advisor Ben Hewlett said: Our new policy means we’ll create more biodiverse new grasslands as standard. And as 97% of all species rich grasslands have been lost in the last century, it is great to think that our construction design standards could create substantial areas of biodiverse grasslands, stretching throughout England. This is another great example of how we are moving away from simply minimising the impact of our work on the environmental impacts towards actually improving the environment through our work. The increase in wildflowers and wider biodiversity should also provide some impressive visual displays, and help to connect people with nature and improve the wellbeing of millions of people using our roads every day.
Wildflowers thrive on low nutrient soil and the new policy is focused around the management of topsoil – or rather removing it from new grassland areas to lower the nutrient level, creating the perfect conditions for the flowers.