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Lady Bird Johnson, widow of US President Lyndon B Johnson and her good friend British naturalist Doctor Miriam Rothschild (below) both always kept a bottle or two of whisky in the boot of their cars.

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The American would have good bourbon, the English woman? What else but a good Scotch?

The purpose was the same in both cases, to encourage wayside wildflowers growing beside the roads.

For Lady Bird it was the blue bonnets, so characteristic of her native Southern states, for Rothschild it was a whole posy of wildflowers in the lanes around her Northamptonshire home.

Snowdrops, primroses, cowslips, cornflowers and poppies and a whole cornucopia of other blooms fell beneath the crude onslaught to make the roadside clean and tidy.

Rothschild and Johnson both realised that modern agriculture had destroyed millions of acres of wild flower meadows both sides of the ocean and for a sustainable countryside we needed to do all we could to preserve wild flowers wherever they grew.

Rothschild died aged 96 in 2005, Lady Bird Johnson in 2007 aged 94. They had both dedicated their later years to conservation and environmental campaigning.

In the US Johnson promoted the protection of roadside flowers like the blue bonnets shown below being enshrined in the Highway Beautification Act always known as Lady Bird’s Bill.

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So how does the whisky work? Well, each of the ladies would, while out driving, watch out for either a farmer spraying herbicide or using mechanised flails and chain mowers or other infernal machines to cut back the roadside growth.

The whisky would be offered, as a bribe, if the rough-handed son of the soil would miss out locations where more rare and delicate specimens were struggling to survive.

Apparently the good ladies’ efforts were successful and many a country lane on both sides of the pond is more beautiful and bountiful today thanks to a drop of the hard stuff.

Sadly far too many roadside verges are still devastated either by chemicals or by cut and slash.

Local councils and private landowners who should know better still spray or cut at the wrong time.

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In fact if mowing and trimming is left until the flowers have set their seed the long term beauty of the verges is actually enhanced. Kill-all herbicides have no place at all in the mantainence of our verges.

There are many miles of roadside verges in Britain and if they were looked after properly they would not just be nicer to look at they would also make a major contribution to biodiversity.

Today the most likely place to see a kestrel or sparrowhawk is hovering over a motorway verge. As it stoops on its prey it demonstrates just how valuable these roadside strips are as safe homes for small mammals like shrews, voles and mice and other creatures like large beetles, frogs, toads and even snakes.

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Wild flowering roadside plants are also essential for pollinating insects including the much threatened honey and bumble bees. Songbirds feed on the seed-heads of many wild flowers.

If I needed proof of how things could be in a better ordered countryside a recent spring visit to Normandy provided it. Here the lanes are almost entirely covered with wild flowers. In late April mile after mile — should that be kilometre after kilometre — of the verges were pale Normandy butter yellow with a close carpet of primroses.Then the brighter and more ragged yellow of cowslips and the strange almost ghostly oxlip.

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More shady verges will soon bring forth lily of the valley (above). The French celebrate May Day giving fragrant bunches of lily of the valley to friends, relatives and on the left to political comrades.

Most spectacular at this time of year are the frequent clumps of hundreds of bright purple pyramidal orchids. They really make a dramatic highlight to a walk, bike ride or country drive.

No Norman farmer or municipal authority would think of spraying or untimely mowing and if they did public opinion would soon put a stop to such unsustainable silliness.

Some parts of Britain seem to have learnt the lesson. On a visit to the Shetland Island of Yell we enjoyed hundreds of spring orchids and other flowers making a brave show beside the roads.

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So next time you see someone mowing or slashing your local verge or hedgerow why not have a quiet word, or better still bribe them to leave the little flowers with a bottle of whisky?

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  • How to get there: Peter and Ann Frost took their favourite route to France. The overnight Brittany Ferry sails from Portsmouth late in the evening. There is just time for a late supper and a nightcap before getting your head down for a good night’s sleep in a comfortable cabin.
  • Wake in the morning for coffee and a croissant and it is soon time to drive ashore at Ouistreham near Caen, you will be refreshed and ready to enjoy all the delights Normandy has to offer. http://www.brittany-ferries.co.uk

This article was first published in the Morning Star on Mayday 2015

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