Country diary: verdant verges, the roadside reserves that teem with life

Simon Ingram

A walk along unfamiliar lanes in a silent quarter of Rutland, a breather in the gasp between storms. One last week, the latter arriving tonight – both named, so all the more like dreaded guests. This February-grey landscape of old woodland and gentle-roll farmland looks both rattled, and braced.

Signs everywhere evoke privacy-paranoia: every wooded track to nowhere, every field beyond a gate, every wood beyond a layby incursion must be guarded with stern language, apparently. As it is, so it was: this area is studded with medieval castles and manors, now just tattoos in woods. Many were moated, for no other reason than status.

I stop to look in the direction of one, over a drystone wall, the closest I can get. Here’s another sign, but this one I don’t mind. It tells me the verge I’m standing on is a roadside nature reserve. A new one to me: I suddenly feel conscious of my feet and look closer to see what I might be disturbing.

Verges are our forgotten, piecemeal preserves: their area along some 300,000 miles of rural roadside is equivalent to our lowland grasslands. They hold 45% of our flora, and therefore invertebrates, those ecosystem engines. That number is falling – beleaguered by nutrient poverty, and ignorance. To many, a verge is just a green ribbon outside the window, or squelch that meets your feet when you park somewhere you shouldn’t.

In weeks these verges might be verdant with wildflowers: it’s winter, so necessary to look closer to see signs of life. It’s here, in the vivid tree mosses, like rough-cut satin. In holes between their root-toes, holes too open and micro-trampled to be vacant.

Along them there are casualties, too. Appendages of trees are strewn about – limbs, joints, knuckles – rotten and heavy with rain, shaken off by last weekend’s winds. I spot a fragile-looking corvid nest still intact in one, and make a note to revisit it after this weekend’s winds have blown through.

Further along, movement, colour – browns, reds, whites. A pheasant, two, three – then, astonishingly, a fourth with a striking silvery plumage – together emerging out of a hedge. Then as I get close, gone. And the verge is just a green ribbon again.