I haven’t written to the Council for a bit, or to my MP, however after pedalling round my local country lanes over the last few days I felt motivated to write the below. I might also submit this to the local newspaper tomorrow to see if they’d life to print a version of it. I’m sharing it on my blog as I’m sure many of you will feel the same way. Here’s a nice photo before getting into the letter; let me know quick if you spot any typos!
03 June 2020
I’m sure like me being able to enjoy Norfolk’s glorious countryside over the last few months has been of great solace during lock-down. We have an amazing variety of habitats, plants, mammals and birds, and I was delighted to see the Swallowtail butterflies when I cycled up to Hickling Broad the other day.
I am currently working from home, as are many people; those fortunate enough not to have been furloughed or made redundant, or our committed key workers who run the risk of catching COVID-19. I try to get out once a day for some exercise, which generally involves a bike ride or a walk around the Salhouse area. At the weekend I go on longer rides taking in many of the county’s country lanes, teeming with wildlife and bird song.
One of the upsides of lock-down is that I’ve been able to get out in my local area a bit more, to appreciate nature in all its glory as Spring turns to Summer. The hundreds of varieties of plants and wildflowers, the insects in their multitudes that feed on them, the birds and mammals eating the insects; a wonderful trophic cascade. A couple of week’s ago I spotted a Stoat bouncing down a lane, hunting along the hedgerow, a sight that filled my heart with joy. It was accompanied by the magnificent sound of Skylark’s song overhead.
In the last two weeks it all seems to have dramatically changed, leaving me very sad, and filled with considerable rage.
Now when I cycle down the same routes the roadside verges, once teeming with life, are quiet, shrunken and lifeless things. They have been shorn down to the bare minimum, often the naked earth, as if Mother Nature herself has been scalped. Gone are the wildflowers and plants, the brightly coloured beetles, the butterflies around the nettles, the birds finding food for their young. There is no sign of the Stoat; there’s nothing for it there anymore.
I don’t understand why this is done. I have checked the information on the Norfolk County Council website on the page linked to below:
It says that roadside verges are only cut for safety reasons and not appearance. They are cut to ensure visibility and safety at junctions. It also extols the virtues of ‘almost 10 miles’ of roadside nature reserves; 10 miles, out of the 1000’s of miles of roadside verges we have in the county.
Now I get the safety and junctions point, and to an extent the visibility bit on some stretches, but the cutting goes far above and beyond this. Most cutting, aside from in the very few designated roadside nature reserves, is extreme, leaving very little cover. I am guessing this is to reduce the frequency of cutting, or is just down to ignorance or lack of care for the habitat being destroyed. I guess it’s also possible the contractors doing this work are assessed and have to make sure it’s clear where they’ve cut, and that the council is getting their money’s worth. I imagine there is a whole governance and sign off process around it that’s miles distant from caring about the safety of the plants, mammals and birds whose homes are being destroyed, or the vitality of the habitat that brings so such joy and relief to walkers and cyclists alike.
It’s not just roadside verges. There are reports of park or common land where wildflower meadows that have been allowed to grow, being dramatically cut back, with nesting birds disturbed or killed. Local residents in those areas have been rightfully devastated and angry to find their little bit of nature gone; it’s really bad for people’s mental health.
It appears the temporary reprieve nature had in many parts of the county, due to lock-down, is over. The stay of execution has expired. Not only are roads getting busier again, packed with traffic with a corresponding increase in roadkill (I passed a beautiful grass snake half squashed near Ranworth the other day, and lets not even get into hedgehog deaths), but we have restarted our relentless pursuit of dominance over nature. It’s got to be controlled, cut, shaped, moulded and turned to our purpose.
I request we change the way we’re looking at this. Roadside verges and hedgerows provide some of the last remaining habitat in the UK for our native flora and fauna. We’ve simply got to realise we’re a part of nature, not apart from nature. By destroying it, and roadside verges are just one simple but effective example, we’re harming ourselves and future generations.
Instead of cutting nearly everything back, which seems to be the case in most places, why can’t we reverse the policy and only cut at real key points, such as at junctions as the Norfolk County Council’s website references. On straight stretches of road, with a clear line of sight, there really can’t be any excuse for cutting down to the bare earth. We’re in a climate and ecological emergency, and desperately need to protect our remaining biodiversity. Instead of just a handful of ‘roadside nature reserves’ why can’t we have just a handful of ‘roadside cutting zones’ with the new normal being verdant habitat for wildlife. Give the plants, mammals and nesting birds a chance.
I’d like to talk about a couple of other things, just to support this.
The UK has been hunted, developed and farmed to within an inch of its life for thousands of years. We have very few wild places left, and a massively reduced diversity of plants and animals. Very few bits of ancient woodland, or habitat that has reached its climax state, remain. We are highly critical of other parts of the world who are destroying their own perhaps more obviously biodiverse habitat, such as rainforest, for example for agricultural purposes. The poorer nations doing this are often doing so to provide goods and services for us. They’re doing now what we’ve done to our own country for centuries, and our own corporations are encouraging them to do so in the name of progress and economic growth.
We’re massively exploiting the Global South for things like food, precious minerals for our mobile phones, palm oil and fossil fuels, with profits mostly going to line the pockets of the elite in the Global North. We’re privileged hypocrites and most of the time we don’t even realise it. Can’t we spare our remaining bits of nature the chop, and try and set a bit of an example for other nations? This also links in with social and environmental justice, but that’s a topic for another day.
The Coronavirus originated in China, and it seems evident that anthropogenic (human based) pressure on natural habitats caused the outbreak. Human incursions (habitat destruction, pollution etc) into natural habitat, stressing natural systems and balances, caused this horrible virus to jump to humans, leaving us with a global pandemic and widespread tragedy and grief. I’m not saying that cutting verges and hedgerows will cause a similar outbreak, but it’s the same principle; destroying nature harms us in the long run, and we’ve got to learn to live alongside it and not try and tame it all the time.
I was really hoping that we could emerge from the pandemic with a new strategy for life, a refreshed system, with no going back to old harmful and destructive practices. I know many people are trying to change the way they live, with working from home becoming the new normal, and perhaps reduced consumption rates and associated emissions. Please can we do all we can to encourage this, including stopping the highly destructive practice of roadside verge and hedge cutting where it’s not needed? It may seem like a little thing, but all these small steps add up to something bigger.
And if we can get a new normal, with more working from home and much less traffic on the roads, we could scrap other environmentally and ecologically destructive projects such as the Wensum Link Road, or housing developments on County Wildlife Sites such as Thorpe Woodlands, or plans to expand Norwich airport. We desperately need to invest in a greener and more sustainable future, and to relieve ourselves of the suicidal notion that unfettered economic growth is either possible, a positive measure of success, or leads to happiness and satisfaction.
I humbly request that as a county we revisit the policy on grass verge cutting, as well as decisions made in a different era on developments that are no longer needed, and which don’t make any sense when we know we need to reduce emissions and protect biodiversity.
If we don’t act now, we wont leave anything for future generations. Please stop scalping Mother Earth.
P.S. Photographic evidence of excessive roadside verge cutting available upon request