MIL-OSI UK Cities: City Council reduces grass verge cutting to help wildflowers, bees and butterflies

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Source: City of Oxford

Oxford City Council has reduced the number of times it cuts grass verges across the city to support wildflower growth, bees and butterflies.

The City Council, in partnership with ODS, used to cut Oxford’s grass verges every fortnight, but will now cut verges alongside main roads once a year and alongside smaller roads once a month.

This will impact all grass verges in Oxford – an area of grass equivalent to 40 football pitches. The decision to reduce the grass cuttings was made by the City Council earlier this year, and the impact of the decision is now beginning to be seen.

The change will encourage the growth of Oxford’s naturally-occurring wildflowers, which in turn will provide pollen for bees and butterflies, and increase the city’s carbon storage. It will also reduce the City Council’s fuel use.

The City Council has committed to getting the organisation – including its buildings and vehicles – to zero carbon by 2030, and is working with the city’s residents, businesses and large organisations to get the whole city to net zero carbon by 2040.

The City Council and ODS manage grass verges in Oxford on behalf of Oxfordshire County Council, which is the highways authority for the city, and parish councils.

It is expected that the change to cutting will be cost neutral. Although carrying out fewer cuts will save money, additional machinery will need to be purchased to manage the longer grass.

More wild flowers

The project aims to encourage Oxford’s indigenous wildflowers and other flora to grow naturally – to allow Mother Nature to grow plants that are appropriate to Oxford’s geology and soil.

In the majority of cases, the City Council is therefore not planning to manage the verges, including by planting wild flowers. The number of wild flowers may be few initially, but should increase through time as the grass becomes less dominant. In a small number of locations the City Council may intervene to reduce the dominance of grass and increase species.

Some of the verges left uncut this year have already started producing wildflowers that are naturally-occurring to the Oxford area, including orchids. ODS will still need to cut and remove the long grass at least once a year as this reduces the fertility of the soil to create conditions favoured by wild flowers. Without some cutting grass will always dominate and out-compete everything else. 

Road safety

The City Council and ODS will continue to maintain verges at junctions where visibility could be impacted by tall wildflowers. At these junctions, a perimeter strip will be mown so drivers can continue to see traffic before exiting the junction.

The Council chooses verges that can grow long without obstructing sightlines for vehicles and is working with local residents to identify streets where people are welcoming of the changes.

The Council is also testing out different approaches to allow differentiated sections of wilder and mown areas in our parks and roadsides, so that everywhere is being appropriately maintained.

If people have particular concerns about the safety at junctions caused by wildflower growth, they can report the concern by phoning the City Council on 01865 249811.

Increased biodiversity

In 2019 Oxford City Council unanimously declared a climate emergency and provided for a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change. Biodiversity was a key theme considered by the Assembly.

Assembly Members were positive about creating more biodiversity and green space around Oxford. They found that protecting and enhancing biodiversity and “greening” the city was seen by Assembly Members as a key route to engagement with communities and individuals.

The City Council is working to improve the biodiversity across Oxford, including by planting 7,000 new trees across the city in recent years. Oxford has about 248,233 trees, which is equivalent to two trees per person – double the ratio for London. Currently the Council is consulting on its Urban Forest strategy and its approach towards protecting and managing trees and vegetation in the city.

In January the City Council worked with Earthwatch Europe and a team volunteers to plant two Tiny Forests – consisting of 600 trees each – in Meadow Lane Nature Reserve and Foxwell Drive.

On top of the urban forest, the City Council also owns and manages just over 600 hectares of accessible green space in the city and surrounding area, including a country park, 33 nature areas and over 60 urban parks.

For more information, visit the Biodiversity in Oxford webpage on the City Council’s website.

“The impact of climate change and habitat loss on wildlife is dramatic, and we are seeing an unprecedented decline in many species, including those vital to wider food chains, such as bees.

“We are facing a biodiversity crisis with 41 per cent of UK species declining and one in 10 is threatened with extinction. There are 60 per cent fewer wild animals and birds in the UK now than there were in 1970. Mown verges provide very little habitat for either, or the insects that so many depend on.

“The situation requires more than just token wildlife areas in a few parks; we need to manage all our green spaces in a way which maximises their potential to better support biodiversity.

“This does mean some of our green spaces will appear more wild and less kempt, but allowing verges to grow helps change that disastrous trend. It also brings more colour and interest to our cityscape. We need to change our perception so we come to see that a patch of wild flowers or stinging nettles buzzing with insects is as beautiful as a formal rose bed.”
Councillor Lubna Arshad, Cabinet Member for Parks and Waste Reduction

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