Roadside diversity in relation to age and surrounding source habitat: evidence for long time lags in valuable green infrastructure.
The severe and ongoing decline in semi-natural grassland habitat during the past two centuries means that it is important to consider how other, marginal grassland habitat elements can contribute to landscape-level biodiversity, and under what circumstances. To examine how habitat age and the amount of core grassland habitat in the surrounding landscape affect diversity in green infrastructure, we carried out inventories of 36 rural road verges that were either historical (pre-1901) or modern (established post- 1901 and before 1975), and were surrounded by relatively high (>15%) or low (<5%) levels of grassland habitat. We recorded the number of plant species, grassland specialists, grassland conservation species and the fraction of the landscape's species and specialists found in the road verge. Road verge communities were characterised by high levels of grassland specialist species (35% of the 161 species recorded), with road verge sites supporting 15-20% of the specialist species found in the surrounding 25 km2 landscape. Richness of species and specialists were more closely related to road age than to the amount of surrounding habitat. Higher diversity in historical roads, despite the majority of modern roads being at least 60 years old, suggests a long time lag in the establishment of grassland communities in marginal grassland habitats. We identified no effect of historical surrounding land use on present day diversity in road verges. Road verge richness was not affected by the amount of surrounding grassland. This could be due to the relatively low amounts of grassland remaining in all landscapes, together with dispersal limitation commonly found in grassland plant communities contributing to a potential time lag. We identified road verges as potentially very important habitats for grassland communities. Because of the high levels of grassland specialists present, these and other marginal grasslands and grassland green infrastructure should be explicitly considered in landscape-scale conservation management. Practitioners looking to identify the most species-rich road verges should aim to find the oldest possible, while long time lags in community assembly suggests that seed sowing could be appropriate to enhance roadside diversity, even in decades-old road verges.