A CHARMOUTH man is being threatened with legal action for fly-tipping, after clearing a verge on the A35 of seeding ragwort and delivering it to the office of National Highways, claiming that their contractor is not doing the job sufficiently.
Having raised concerns about the management of the verges on the Charmouth bypass back in 2018, John Calder volunteered to help National Highways, formerly known as Highways England, develop a comprehensive plan – something he described as an “enormous and challenging workload – which balanced the control of weeds and encouraged biodiversity.
But now he says that National Highways’ contractor is not fulfilling its obligations, and the organisation is reluctant to confront and resolve the issue.
In particular, Mr Calder is concerned about the possible spread of seeding ragwort into neighbouring grazing pastures.
The weed is poisonous and produces large numbers of seeds which are easily dispersed by the wind and can be particularly harmful to cattle and horses.
Mr Calder felt so strongly about the issue that he took matters into his own hands and spent hours cutting back the ragwort during August, filming himself to demonstrate the issue to the regional director of National Highways.
He also made three deliveries of the cuttings to National Highways’ offices in Exeter in a bid to get the organisation to take notice, but he has now been threatened with legal action for fly-tipping.
Mr Calder has now raised a formal complaint about how the entire situation has been handled.
‘Not fulfilling obligations’
He said: “Some considerable progress has been made on the wildflower enhancement front, but their contractor’s control of ragwort has been awful.
“Despite the enormous unpaid effort that I have put into generating an appropriately balanced programme in collaboration with them, National Highways hope to solve their ragwort problem by simply blocking any further contact between me and their staff.
“So far, I have delivered three truck loads of seeding high risk ragwort that I have cut from their verges here at Charmouth to prove to them the extent by which their contractor is not fulfilling their obligations.
“National Highways claim their ragwort control process is endorsed by Natural England but, if so, that endorsement only arose because I had intervened and cleared a bag of high-risk ragwort on October 4 2020, which happened to be a few days before a crucial Rural Payments Agency inspection.
“Their process was found to be effective last year only because I had intervened to mop up what the contractor had left undone.
“The contractor undertakes a risk assessment at the start of the season and is supposed to keep it alive through the summer.
“They are supposed to hand crop the ragwort flowers everywhere that high or medium risk ragwort arises and to make visits with sufficient frequency to catch regrowth (or late growth).
“The fact that they consistently fail to do it points to a disconnect between National Highways policy (compliance with the DEFRA Code of Practice on How to Prevent the Spread of Ragwort) and the contractor’s implementation of it. There will be an identifiable disconnect between policy and practice but National Highways prefer to ignore it.”
Although acknowledging that progress had been made on improving biodiversity on the verges, Mr Calder has also raised concerns that grass cuttings are not being cleared correctly from the area, which prevents wildflowers from growing, and one section of the targeted verges had not been cut at all.
‘Working with local communities’
Andrew Page-Dove, National Highways’ South West regional director, said: “The way we manage our roadside verges along the A35 in Dorset is important to us and we take their maintenance seriously.
“This year we have taken steps to improve the biodiversity of the verges through a dedicated wildflower scheme, and we are in the process of spreading locally produced wildflower seeds and changing the way we cut verges to encourage growth.
“The A35 Grassland Management Scheme covers 15 sites along the A35, a key contributor to National Highways’ target of no net loss of biodiversity across all of our activities by the end of the second road investment period, and we are listening to and working with local communities and organisations to achieve that.
“We balance the desire to increase wildflowers, while controlling more undesirable species, such as ragwort, and throughout the summer we have been acting and complying with DEFRA’s code of practice to control the spread of this weed species.”