Health warning – I’m about to be controversial this month! How do you like your verges? Those strips of ground along the sides of pavements, roads and around car parks? Do you look for bowling green perfection? Are you happy with rough and ready? Or would you like to see something attractive but relaxed and informal, not too neat? This year I’ve been focusing Outside the Back Door on what we can all do in our gardens and back yards to improve our environment and do our little bit for the climate crisis but this month I want to look slightly further afield. Not too far, probably just as far as the top of the road.
One effect of the Coronavirus lockdown was councils having to re-prioritise tasks and budgets. In many cases the need to trim verges around the boroughs fell to the bottom of the list. In my own borough, the debate escalated recently as “enraged of RIchmond” took to social media to complain that standards were slipping and how ghastly it was to see all these wild flowers blooming around verges and attracting, shock, horror, insects! As you might imagine, those of a different persuasion equally fought their corner, arguing the case strongly for this more relaxed, environmentally friendly approach – an approach which, in fairness, has already been deliberately adopted by some local authorities.
With so many appreciating getting closer to nature during lockdown, or rather nature getting closer to them, the role played by our in-between spaces, such as verges, can’t be ignored. If we’re to hear more birdsong, we need to ensure plenty of insects around for birds to feed on – they can’t live on our nut and seed feeders alone! And if we want to be dazzled by beautiful butterflies, we must provide the nectar to sustain them. Our rougher, more unkempt verges can bloom and become a really important source of food.
Insects must surely be the most reviled of all God’s creatures? I’m the first to admit that I will run a mile from a wasp and can only remove spiders up to a certain dimension! I’ve only been stung by a bee once (I hope I don’t regret writing that!) and it was a painful experience. Thankfully it’s not put me off encouraging bees into the garden. Any plant I buy these days comes with the ‘bee friendly’ tag. Scientists have shown that without bees we couldn’t survive. So imagine my concern when, during that very hot spell towards the end of June, I kept finding large bumblebees dying on my lawn. At the time our ‘lawn’ was a mass of clover as we’d stopped cutting due to the drought. Every day we were finding one or two bees staggering across the flower heads and then they would just stop, literally dead in their tracks. It was so sad to see. I was so concerned that I contacted the local Wildlife Trust who introduced me to a new Facebook group called Nature in Richmond. There I found other people reporting the same thing but also bee ‘experts’ who explained that the UK’s bumblebee populations are moving north due to warmer summers in the south of England as a result of climate change.
Joining this Facebook group has been a revelation. You can post a photograph of just about anything wildlife related and someone is likely to know the answer. Apart from recognising their importance, I confess I know almost nothing about insects but I have been delighted to post a photo of, for example, a hoverfly and to have it identified as a ‘marmalade hoverfly’. Another colourful mystery was a red-belted clear-wing moth! I’ve discovered that sightings such as this also get logged by the South-West London Environmental Network and added to their Biodiversity Record. So whilst it’s a great source of information (and of some fabulous photography I should add), it’s also rewarding to know that we’re contributing to understanding the nature around us.
So whilst we’re on the topic of insects, let’s not forget the butterflies and my impression is that it has been a good summer for them. I’ve carried out one or two butterfly counts in the garden and uploaded them to the Butterfly Conservation Trust who run this annual survey. Across the summer I’m delighted to have seen large and small whites, commas, peacocks, red admirals, holly blues, brimstones, speckled wood and an abundance of gatekeepers. However, a couple of weeks ago I saw a flash of orange followed by a flash of black and white that settled on the crab apple tree. Before I could take a closer look it had fluttered away. I went to get the camera but by then it had vanished. A few days later I was walking in Crane Park and saw the same thing. This time it was more obliging and settled on a convenient nettle patch ready to be photographed – a Jersey Tiger! I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen one of these before and I’m delighted to say that I’ve seen another since in a local road where there is an unkempt verge, full of nettles (and sadly dumped rubbish). Butterflies love nettles and wild flowers that are rich in nectar. They are also a very important indicator of the health of our environment. So it’s back to those grass verges again.