What are we doing?
We are working with parish and town councils to make better use of the district council-owned pieces of land that can have a significant positive biodiversity impact in our urban areas. It is important that we look at alternative ways to manage these sections of land and with the collaboration of the local councils and stakeholders we can improve not only the visual appeal of these areas but also improve our Biodiversity Net Gain.
Just over half of district council-maintained land is what is known as amenity grass – grass that is intensively maintained and closely mown every 2-3 weeks between March and October. We manage and maintain just over 256 hectares (2.56 million m2) of which 52% is amenity grass and in terms of biodiversity, is currently classed as Poor.
Our commitment is to:
alter how we manage 25% of these areas by allowing grass to grow to meadow grass and cutting once a year
increase the amount of floral meadows we sow by 25% over the next four years (currently 1.4 hectares)
increase the tree canopy by adopting and implementing a four-year tree planting programme (approximately 10,000 trees).
Biodiversity Unit Gain
DEFRA’s Biodiversity Net Gain calculator shows that enhancing 100m2 of neutral grassland from poor condition (a heavily mown verge with few wildflowers and no diversity in sward height) to moderate condition (a roadside verge mown once or twice a year with a range of wildflowers and a diverse sward height) increases the biodiversity value by 70%.
We will identify areas of alternative land management by marking them with a sign. The sign will provide a QR code and link to our more detailed pages outlining exactly what is going on in that specific area. All designated alternative land management sites will have a 1m wide mowing strip around the edge where the grass meets footpaths for safety.
We are currently working together with parish and town councils to identify the most suitable areas within the district to begin our alternative approach to land management.
There are several benefits to reassessing how we manage this land, including increased biodiversity, improved habitats for nature and a reduced carbon footprint.
Regular mowing means these sites have the least variety of wildlife (biodiversity) so changing the way we manage them will make a significant change to this enabling more plants, insects, birds and mammals to flourish.
Benefits to insects and other wildlife
Roadside verges are critical in providing corridors of connective habitat for insects across the country. Nectar-producing flowers provide foraging opportunities while mowing the grass to varied heights will provide sheltering habitat.
The decline in insects and birds across the UK has been well documented. Pollinators are suffering due to a decline in habitat. Bird species are declining through a reduction in nesting areas and their food sources of seeds and insects.
Introducing areas of tall grass and floral meadow will provide several benefits for insects, birds and mammals such as shelter and a place to hunt, feed and breed.
Pilots of annual and perennial floral meadows planting across the district have already proven successful and popular with the public.
Only mowing once annually is going to significantly reduce CO2 emissions produced. This will free up resources for work on managing habitats in the district to provide benefits for biodiversity.
Plant life has estimated that if cutting all road verges in Britain was reduced from four times a year to twice a year, it would save over 30,000 tons of CO2 emissions.
Providing more tree canopy coverage across the region will help offset our carbon footprint. Trees provide a habitat for a wild range of wildlife providing both food and shelter.
Reducing the fuel used when cutting the grass will also reduce our carbon footprint.
Initial meetings with the first wave of parish and town councils are already underway with a view for the first tranche of work beginning in Spring 2023.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why are you doing rewilding?
The decline in insects and birds across the UK has been well documented. Pollinators are suffering due to a decline in habitat. Bird species are declining through the reduction in nesting areas and their food sources of seeds and insects.
Huntingdonshire District Council (HDC) is actively seeking ways to become carbon neutral by 2040. The idea of rewilding our urban areas goes hand in hand with this. Providing more tree canopy coverage across the region will help offset our carbon footprint. Trees provide a habitat for a wild range of wildlife providing both food and shelter.
Introducing areas of tall grass will provide several benefits for insects, birds, and mammals such as shelter and a place to hunt, feed and breed. Reducing the time spent cutting the grass will also reduce our carbon footprint.
To maximise these biodiversity benefits we are rewilding parts of our open spaces where we cut the grass regularly. This regular mowing means these sites have the least variety of wildlife (biodiversity) so rewilding them will make a significant change to this enabling more plants, insects, birds, and mammals to flourish.
Leaving the grass to grow tall enables both grasses and wildflowers in the sward to reach their potential by enabling flowering and seeding. It is important to note that tall grass species are just as important for wildlife as wildflowers.
How much of the parks and opens spaces are we rewilding?
We currently manage 134 hectares of amenity grass in our parks and open spaces. Our current plans have identified 20.5 hectares for rewilding, plus 5 hectares of tree planting with the underplanting of spring bulbs and long grass.
Our current plans mean that we will be changing the management of 19.3 % of our open spaces.
How did you inform people about rewilding?
Social media pages will run notifications of the project and on tree planting sites there will be signs. HDC also published it on their own social media pages several times.
We also circulated information with a number of different organisations including all town and parish councils and local volunteer groups and asked them to share this with their wider networks as well.
We have responded to feedback that not everyone knew about our rewilding, so we will be placing signs at locations where we are proposing to introduce rewilding. These signs will direct people to the council's website to learn more about the proposals using a QR code.
What can I do if I don't agree with rewilding?
If concerns are raised and demonstrate a clear reason for an area to be excluded, then we will consider adjusting the area to suit the local needs. We will work with residents and other groups to work through any other highlighted concerns.
In the future, we will be informing residents in advance of areas that will be rewilded with signage on site.
If you do have any concerns, please contact the council using the information provided on the signage.
Why did you choose to rewild these areas of open space?
We are rewilding parcels of our amenity grass. Amenity grass covers most of our parks and open spaces and it is the grass we cut on a regular cycle of about 12-15 days.
This is our biggest landholding and least biodiverse land, so changing the management of this land stands to make the biggest impact on wildlife.
Will the rewilding of grass areas create lots of flowers?
We agree that flower meadows do look lovely. However, they are expensive to establish, and they are labour-intensive to manage.
On the other hand, tall grass provides huge benefits to wildlife, including providing seed heads, pollen, shade, areas to hide/hunt/reproduce and areas maintaining moisture which is important for amphibians. As such, the overall gain is very similar.
We will be monitoring our rewilded areas and will adapt our management to support wildflowers where we identify them growing naturally.
Will rewilded areas look untidy?
We think this is a matter of personal taste.
We also recognise that this change to our traditional management of blanket mowing might take time to get used to. We hope that in future we will all be able to appreciate the colour variation and wildlife value of tall grass.
We are mowing edges and paths through areas to illustrate we are still actively maintaining this land.
Please also remember that a large proportion of our land is still being managed as amenity grass.
Will the rewilded areas attract vermin and ticks?
Rats are part of the natural environment and are present in most locations. Tall grass and tree planting areas will not attract them any more than existing hedgerows and other vegetation. For populations to exist, a constant food source must be present and tall grass and tree planting does not provide this.
Ticks are also part of the natural environment, but for them to proliferate a contributing host (such as deer) must be present regularly. In most of our urban areas populations of both host animals and ticks, in general, are low.
There will also be mown areas at all locations, so you do not need to enter tall grass areas if you do not wish to.
Will rewilded areas attract rubbish and dog mess?
Rewilding does not stop residents from still being responsible for not dropping litter or picking up after their dogs. Tall grass is not an adequate reason or excuse not to do so.
We will litter-pick areas if needed and before we mow the grass at the end of the season.
How will you manage the tall grass?
The grass will be cut once at the end of the growing season during September-October (exact timing will be dependent on the weather).
Most places will be cut using a machine called a flail towed on the back of a tractor or situated on the front of a ride-on mower. This equipment cuts the grass into lots of small pieces.
In a few locations, we will cut and collect the grass. These areas will be chosen if they are particularly good for wildflowers because removing the cuttings will make the soil less fertile which is what wildflowers need to flourish.
How will you manage the trees?
Our in-house Arboricultural Team will be looking after the newly planted trees to help weed and mulch them, keep them upright and renew the spiral protection as necessary.
During the early years, the trees will be mulched. This suppresses weed growth helping the trees to establish quicker.
This type of tree planting (using small trees called 'whips') means that not all trees will get established and a number may die. Once the trees start to get established (about 10 years onwards) we will thin areas out to enable the stronger specimens to grow.
We do expect several trees to die because of weather conditions, pests and diseases and the general rough and tumble of open space use.
Why are you using plastic spirals on the trees?
These guards are important in helping to get these small and vulnerable trees established. They help to stop animals from nibbling on them, but more importantly, they make the trees visible to people and contractors, so they don't accidentally get trodden on. We will be removing these in 3-5 years once the trees are established.
Do you water the trees?
It is not normal practice to water whips because of the costs involved. It is normal to expect some to fail and this is factored into the overall large number that you plant. However, in extremely prolonged heat, we will water the whips.
How will I know which sites are going to be rewilded (grass and trees)?
We will be putting signs up, in advance, on the open spaces where rewilding will take place.
These signs will link to more information on our website, including a map.
Why are you not rewilding private land?
This is not the current objective of the council's rewilding project, which is to rewild as much of our land as possible, which is a significant task in itself.
We also do not have the resources to approach private landowners or have any power to influence them. We are working on a green infrastructure strategy which will include ways to work in partnership with other organisations and landowners.
Are you doing rewilding just to save money?
Rewilding is about improving biodiversity to help address the significant decline in species that is currently happening. Not using machinery will also reduce the amount of fuel HDC uses and thus reducing our carbon footprint.