Life on the edge: the wonders of Suffolk’s Roadside Nature Reserves

There are 106 Roadside Nature Reserves in Suffolk – remnants of the meadows of yesteryear and increasingly important havens for rare plants and corridors for wildlife.

Cars speed by on the old Bury Road, the occupants obviously in a hurry to get to their destination.

But in their haste, they miss a beautiful sight. Here, near the village of Hawstead, south of Bury St Edmunds, this narrow slither of roadside land slopes down to the ditch, half-concealing the special wild plants on the verge – among them crested cow wheat, quaking grass and a stunning display of pyramid orchids.

I am standing in amid Suffolk Roadside Nature Reserve number 170 with Adrian Walters, volunteer warden for this 100-metre curved stretch of botanical wonder, and the man responsible for securing protected status for the location more than 20 years ago.

Adrian Walters surrounded by pyramid orchids Photo: Ross Bentley

“My wife was driving back from Bury, and I was in the passenger seat, so I was able to enjoy the scenery,” he recalls.

“As we were driving past here I saw sulphur clover on the verge. Later, I cycled back to check and then passed the details onto Suffolk County Council.”

White post

Hawstead 170 is one of 106 Roadside Nature Reserves(RNRs) listed throughout Suffolk. Similar numbers exist across Norfolk and in Essex, where they are also referred to as Special Roadside Verges (SRVs). Designation is awarded if the verge is home to protected or scarce plants or is a particularly good example of grassland meadow habitat, which in itself is scarce these days. Some RNRs are on quiet lanes, others on busy thoroughfares where wardens must remain alert to the dangers of passing traffic.

Most are marked with a white post at each end, primarily to alert contractors cutting verges to treat the area sensitively.

The RNR white marker at Hawstead Photo: Ross Bentley

Since the time of Mr Walters’ discovery, he has worked to maximise the potential of this verge, at first removing a number of small trees that had been planted here, and then every autumn – once flowers have seeded and invertebrates are hunkered down in preparation for the cold months – raking and removing the grass from the area after the council’s highways team have cut it.

By taking grass away and not allowing it to mulch into the soil, he creates the nutrient-poor conditions that wild flowers need to thrive. It is, in effect, replicating the old haymaking techniques once common across the country. These old ways of managing the land have virtually disappeared, together, tragically, with almost all of our wildflower meadows.

The grass is cleared and cut from the verfge at Hawstead Photo: Adrian Walters

An incredible 98% of grassland has been lost in the 70 or so years since the end of World War II, as a result of changes of land use, intensive cultivation and drainage.

It’s a startling statistic, and I think about the precarious existence of these wild flowers, hemmed into a narrow space by cars on one side, and hedges on the other. They are on the edge, the verge – it’s a depressingly appropriate metaphor.

Last refuge

“Roadside verges are the last refuge for a number of our wild plants that don’t have anywhere else to grow,” Martin Sanford, manager at the Suffolk Biodiversity Information Service, tells me.

“They are habitats that haven’t been ploughed reseeded or sprayed. They may be subject to other challenges, such as littering and car fumes, but the habitat is relatively wild.”

With much of our grassland gone, verges offer “a tiny bit of what would have been,” he adds.

Mr Sanford says roadside borders host rare fungi and many pollinator species while classic wild plants for Suffolk verges are sulphur clover and crested cow wheat, which do well on the boulder clay meadow habitats in west Suffolk.

Both plants are scarce nationally and so Suffolk has “a special responsibility to look after them and try and increase numbers,” he says.

Crested cow wheat Photo; Ross Bentley

At Suffolk County Council, head of natural environment, Tim De-Keyzer, says the damp spring weather and warm temperatures that have followed have created the conditions for good wild flower displays on the county’s verges this year.

He says the authority has an ambition to grow the number of RNRs in the county but needs the help of the public to do this.

“We don’t know if there are more out there and we rely on enthusiasts to inform us if there is a particularly attractive verge that may qualify,” he continues.

“We would like to expand the number of RNRs to generate more awareness and to try and reverse the loss of biodiversity that has been well-documented in recent years – it’s about taking action on a local level where we can make a difference.”

Sulphur clover Photo: Ross Bentley


As well as identifying potential new RNRs, members of the public are also required to manage them.

Together with the verge at Hawstead, Mr Walters also cares for another RNR at nearby Shimpling. As I look closer at the bounty of wild flowers and the abundance of invertebrates feeding off them, I put it to him that he must be proud of the fruits of his labour.

He tells me he prefers to use the word ‘delight’ rather than ‘proud’.

“I have a feeling of sheer delight in these wild flowers that we don’t commonly see in our countryside anymore,” he says.

“Here’s an assemblage of them, a whole range, altogether, so that you can come here in early spring when it’s a sheet of cowslips right through to the autumn when you see the first flowering scabious.”

We stand and look across the hedge and see the neighbouring farmland, which at one time, would almost certainly have been grassland but today has crops right up to its boundaries.

“I feel strongly, we should be doing something similar on the other side of the hedge and that there should a compulsory obligation for every farm to have a wildflower margin on its fields,” Mr Walters continues.

“It would provide connectivity for nature and you’d have corridors all the way through England. Nature is resilient if she is provided with the canvas, but we have to provide that canvas.”

This article first appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times in July 2019

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