Long grass verges review

In June 2020, the Council published a review of its land holdings (Biodiversity Review for Oxford City Council Parks and Nature Areas 2020) that set out all the great work already done to support biodiversity in our green spaces in recent years, and identified a wide range of further habitat improvement projects and environmental initiatives.

The review recommended looking for opportunities to change the way some grass verges in the city are managed to increase their potential to support biodiversity, including creating wildflower areas. This document outlines a plan to manage grass verges around the city in a more environmentally friendly way, how this can be achieved, and what impact this will have on the appearance of these sites.

Grass verges in Oxford City are mown by Oxford Direct Services (ODS). Under standard management, the verges are cut with ride-on machinery and strimmers and cuttings are left in situ. Verges that are cut regularly are perceived to be neater, tidier and easier to litter pick but have a lower biodiversity value.  Prior to 2021, most verges in Oxford City were mown every 15 working days between March and October (the growing season).

Exceptions to this were the verges along Grenoble and Marston Ferry Roads, which were (and are) allowed to grow longer. These larger verges are maintained in this way as they are easy to access with a tractor mounted flail. The verges receive one cut in late summer. Cuttings are removed.

A review was undertaken in 2021 to assess if the number of long grass verges could be increased in an effort to increase their biodiversity value. Allowing the verges to grow longer prior to cutting means the wildflowers present can grow, flower and set seed. This provides greater nectar resources for pollinators and enables the wildflower populations to flourish.

This is not the same as stopping management of the verges altogether, which leads to a small number of coarse grasses and undesirable species crowding out other plants and actually reduces their diversity.

Verges in 26 locations were selected and allowed to grow longer, with a single cut in late-summer 2021. These locations are identified in Table 1. Cuttings were also removed from these locations to reduce the nutrients in the grassland and further encourage greater species diversity. Where there are highway junctions, a section of grass was maintained at a lower height for motorist, cyclist and pedestrian sight lines.

Long grass verges list for 2021

Potential long grass verges - Total: 26

North

  • 1) Marston Road
  • 2) Headington Road
  • 3) Warneford Road
  • 4) Old Marston Road
  • 5) Oxford Road
  • 6) Cherwell Drive
  • 7) Marston Ferry Road
  • 8) Lonsdale/Marston Ferry Track
  • 9) Marsh Lane
  • 10) Headley Way
  • 11) Eastern Bypass
  • 12) The Roundway
  • 13) Bayswater Road
  • 14) Elsfield Way
  • 15) Sunderland Avenue
  • 16) Abingdon Road

South

  • 1) Barracks Lane
  • 2) Awgar stone (behind hedge)
  • 3) Horspath Road (leave roundabout)
  • 4) Church Cowley Road
  • 5) Watlington Road
  • 6) Grenoble Road
  • 7) Long Lane
  • 8) Cardinal Close (the bank only)
  • 9) Oxford Road Bypass
  • 10) Rose Hill/Henley Avenue

For the long grass verges to be increased there needed to be a financial investment in labour, machinery and disposal costs (grass would need to be collected after being cut). A capital investment of £90k was allocated to the project to purchase specialist machinery and pay for the disposal of cut grass.

The long grass project started in March 2021. Throughout the mowing season complaints and concerns were monitored by the Council’s Communities Team and ODS Parks & Open Spaces Service. A number of these complaints arose from poor communication about of the aims of the project and the subsequent lack of public understanding. 

For example, there were a number of complaints around the presence of nettles on the verges and the perceived lack of wildflowers. The native flora is being allowed to develop naturally to understand the existing value of the verges. The diversity of species in the seed bank is not always immediately apparent and it can take several years for this to show through.

There were also a number of positive comments from residents who monitored their local verges for the presence of new flora and fauna. Pyramidal and Bee Orchids were found naturally occurring on the long grass verges around the bypass.

In some instances, where the seed bank is impoverished, there may be a benefit to sowing additional wildflower species. However, this cannot be established in the short-term and in the first instance our approach is to see what naturally develops. Any decision to undertake additional enhancement work (i.e. sowing) should be evidence-based and – crucially – informed by the numerous health and safety considerations that arise when managing roadside habitats.

Some alterations have been made to the scheme in line with further resident consultation. It is recommended five of the verges included in the 2021 trial revert to a monthly cut.

The remaining 21 verges below would again be allowed to grow longer and subjected to a single cut and collect. This revised list of verges equates to 30km. An initial estimate suggests this reduced cutting regime would save in the region of 10 tonnes of CO2 emissions a year.  

Revised long grass verges list for 2022

Potential long grass verges - Total: 21

North

  • 1) Marston Road
  • 2) Headington Road
  • 3) Cherwell Drive
  • 4) Marston Ferry Road
  • 5) Lonsdale/Marston Ferry Track
  • 6) Marsh Lane
  • 7) Eastern Bypass
  • 8) The Roundway
  • 9) Bayswater Road
  • 10) Elsfield Way
  • 11) Sunderland Avenue
  • 12) Abingdon Road

Verges removed from 2021 list: Warneford Road, Old Marston Road, Oxford Road, Headley Way

South

  • 1) Awgar stone (behind hedge)
  • 2) Horspath Road (leave roundabout)
  • 3) Church Cowley Road
  • 4) Watlington Road
  • 5) Grenoble Road
  • 6) Long Lane
  • 7) Cardinal Close (the bank only)
  • 8) Oxford Road Bypass
  • 9) Rose Hill/Henley Avenue

Verges removed from 2021 list: Barracks Lane

Next steps

The next steps following this review are to:

  1. Carry out consultations with ward councillors and residents regarding the revised list of verges to be maintained at a longer height.
  2. Invest in signage to help promote and educate residents on the benefits of long grass verges.
  3. Explore the potential scope and funding of survey work by Oxford City Council on accessible verges to assess the plant diversity of the verges and where intervention to increase the number of wildflowers may be required.