Enhancing Biodiversity on Council Land

One of the ways we are responding to the loss of wildlife globally and in the UK is to create more biodiverse green areas.

In 2020, South Hams District Council declared a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency.

This reflects worrying evidence about the declining state of nature globally and in the UK. There have been significant reductions in numbers and diversity of birds, mammals and invertebrates (bees, butterflies, beetles, moths, etc), and loss of quality habitat upon which they rely.

The South Hams is not immune to this decline.

The Council recognises the need for us to play our part by creating and restoring more biodiverse green spaces and verges to provide value to a wide range of wildlife.

Wildflower areas will support many more and varied pollinators compared to amenity grass areas, while adding trees to these spaces offers more opportunities to wildlife for food, shelter, nesting sites and each tree can be an ecosystem in itself.

We consulted South Hams residents in 2021 and received over 1,000 responses (the highest response rate to any survey we had conducted) with overwhelmingly positive and supportive responses.

  • Over 97% of residents that responded were in favour of general principle of improving biodiversity and wildlife value
  • Over 90% of residents were in favour of:
    • relaxation of cutting regimes
    • leaving areas of long grass on verges and peripheries of parks
    • new areas of wildflower planting.

What we are doing about it?

Since the survey we have planted and are maintaining over 600 large trees at over 30 green spaces within our towns. These new trees have an immediate benefit to wildlife (with spring flowers) and also contribute to improving the look and feel of our green spaces, making them more enjoyable places to visit - in a decade many of these newly planted trees will offer welcome shelter in our hot summers.

In the 2023 cutting season we are also introducing changes to the cutting approach on parts of some sites. Where we know that sites or parts of sites support where children play games like football, or are used for picnicking and dog walking we are not making changes. However, where we think we can make changes without affecting recreational uses, and where short grass is not necessary, we will reduce and change our approach to grass cutting, and there will be longer grass as a result. This might be around the edges of parks and green spaces, road verges or amongst areas of new tree planting.

To try and maximise the benefit for wildlife and to limit excessive material lying on site after cutting long grass, where practical we will also remove cuttings with cut and collect machines from the less frequently cut areas. This has the benefit of reducing nutrients going back into the soil from the decomposing grass cuttings, which in turn gives wildflowers more of a chance to flourish amongst vigorous grasses.  

What wildflowers? It's just long grass and weeds?

The benefits of long grass and 'weeds' should not be overlooked. This type of habitat offers shelter, food and pollination benefits to invertebrates. These in turn support the birds and mammals that feed upon them. Even the humble dandelion supports many of our bee species, hoverflies, beetles and various butterflies - it acts as an important early food source in spring for these pollinators when little else is flowering in many urban environments

Our approach will take some time to see best results. Collecting cuttings will start reducing the nutrients going back into the amenity grass area. Once this takes effect, we might start seeing some more varied wildflowers coming through that has otherwise been hidden by the regular cutting regime.

Where it is clear that there is no wildflower lurking in amenity areas, we may look to proactively create new wildflower areas through sowing appropriate seed mixes.

Initially we would prefer to 'watch and see' as is recommended by most wildlife bodies as the best approach rather than stripping areas and sowing wildflower. Sometimes nature just needs a chance to reveal itself!

Is this just a cost cutting exercise?

No - the approach is cost neutral. Although we are reducing frequency of cutting at some areas, when we do cut them it will take longer (as the grass will be longer and in many cases we will be collecting cuttings).

We will also be visiting some sites regularly to cut paths and framing edge cuts. This exercise is about taking our responsibility seriously, and reacting to the very real global emergencies, if only at the small scale of our Council owned green spaces.

Won't this all be untidy?

We know that not everyone will support the approach, particularly when it comes to aesthetics - one person's flowery meadow is another's neglected weedy area. We understand this and will be using tried and tested approaches, such as:

  • keeping edges regularly cut to frame long grass,
  • cutting paths through long grass, and
  • erecting signs so that it is clear that areas are being cut less regularly for benefit of wildlife.

What impact will there really be at this small scale?

A recent Plymouth University and Buglife survey in Plymouth in 2019 compared 12 wildflower meadows that the City Council had created with 12 of their amenity grass areas (with at least 50 m between the wildflower and amenity grass areas, but within the same parks).

The survey found:

  • 24x more abundance and 5x more variety of hoverflies in wildflower meadows than in amenity grassland.
  • 25x more abundance and 3x more variety of butterflies and moths in wildflower meadows than amenity grassland.
  • A higher number and variety of pollinators recorded in wildflower meadows and grassland, with 69% of the total number of pollinators observed in wildflower meadows.
  • That sites with higher diversity of flowers recorded higher numbers and variety of pollinators.

How can I get involved?

If you have an area near you where we have introduced the new wildlife cutting regime, and you see interesting wildlife or wildflowers, or if you would love to see your local Council owned green space included in our new approach, please do let us know at parks@swdevon.gov.uk.

We are definitely expecting to learn over the next few years as we introduce changes, and will listen to suggestions from residents about their local area as well as our Grounds Maintenance staff and make changes accordingly.

Wood from Council Trees

Under management of trees on council land, we chip all brush and store timber arising from the works on site.

This includes the creation of habitat piles that are safely left to decay on site, in particular within our woodland sites.

However, where it is safe to do so, and where the tree works are fully completed with the cordoned off areas reopened, logs can be foraged by the public at their own risk. Currently the council are not placing any charges on such foraging, which is on a first come, first served basis.

If you choose to approach the tree team while they are still on the site, please observe their safety instructions.