Rewilding the pavement

North Somerset is a very wildlife rich county. We can easily walk to half a dozen outstandingly diverse habitats which – because we have both a river and a canal – reach like green fingers to the centre of the city. Otters are often seen within a quarter of a mile of our flat, and in summer we can lean over the riverside and see Dace swimming in the shallows. It’s a joy. The tourist guide writers love to swoon over the honey coloured stone at sunset and we not only have parks but also a botanical garden, riverside walks and a cycle path linking us with Bristol and into the National Network that could take you to London on a bike or in a kayak. I don’t want to oversell the beauties because we’re already stuffed with tourists but living in a beautiful city with a local authority which has declared the environmental emergency feels like a step in the right direction.

This year – finally – the City Council took the brave decision to stop spraying our streets and pavements with Glyphosate. The policy seems to have met with less resistance than the clean air zone – or CAZ -which has provoked venomous opposition from those who think parking their SUV’s outside on the pavement next to their favourite shop is some kind of human right. The pollution here has not only been persistent, it’s been illegal and the Council have struggled to impose a policy that would actually work. Exempting all private cars including the Range Rovers and Discoveries was a sop to the most vocal opponents but the policy is working – although much more slowly than it might have done. The providential closure of a major HGV route through the centre of Bath during bridge repairs may have had a lot to do with the results so far.

The routine spraying of pavements was a different issue. Through traffic has been a problem for more than fifty years, but the removal of any plants from the pavements seems to be a hangover from another age; an age in which weeds were treated as an enemy that needed to be vanquished every year – as if the pavements were a war zone. The consequences of weeds were never clearly specified but unknown horrors such as pensioners tripping over were gravely hinted at. In truth, generations of municipal grounds people (I was one of them) were raised within the ancient hostilities and killing weeds gave a kind of atavistic pleasure.

So this is the first year of the new policy and we’re just beginning to see the results. Truth to tell, Glyphosate is a rubbish weedkiller in any case because more and more so-called weeds are developing resistance to it. The plants just died back and played possum for a month or two and then sprang into new life as if nothing had happened. The consequences for the rest of us were less benign, and rivers and their associated water tables have been saturated with poison which has been finding its way into our water supplies and into us. Bayer/Monsanto will claim it’s all a myth but then – they would, wouldn’t they?

The photos at the top could not have been taken on the same day and month in any year within the last decades because by now they would have gone. So it’s a complete joy to report all of these modest beauties growing within fifteen paces of our front door. There are many more, but the street is lined with Mexican Fleabane – that’s the pretty daisy looking plant. Then there’s Canadian Fleabane growing rapidly, Ivy Leaved Toadflax, Broad Leaved Plantain, Cat’s Ear, Smooth Sows’ Ear, Prickly Sows’ Ear, Dandelion, Wall Lettuce, Nipplewort, and Pineapple Weed. There’s Annual Meadow Grass and Wall Barley. At the back there’s Herb Robert, Great Lettuce and many other species. I suppose it was a matter of mindset rather than moral deficiency that kept us killing them off every year – culture eats strategy for breakfast after all and in time, I hope, more and more people will come to appreciate these miniature nature reserves on our doorsteps – after all it’s faintly miraculous that anything can survive in this hot, dry, waterless and polluted hostile environment. It’s a tribute to the persistence and adaptability of nature that these ancient residents and relative newcomers can emerge, seemingly from nowhere, miles from their natural habitats in fields and hedgerows.

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