Native wildflower meadows on the road will line the verges of all new large-scale road projects under an initiative by Highways England, the Guardian can reveal.

Nodding blue harebells, clusters of yellow kidney vetch and flashes of bird’s-foot-trefoil could soon become the norm on stretches of the road network in England with the infrastructure provider committing to the creation of biodiverse grasslands as standard on all new major schemes.

The UK has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s, and the move could create substantial areas of rare habitat along hundreds of miles of motorways and A-roads for pollinators such as bees, bats and birds.

Wildflower meadows on the road for biodiversity great project

Under the new low nutrient grasslands policy, Highways England contractors will be obliged to create conditions for species-rich grasslands to thrive using low fertility soils with chalk and limestone bases. The verges will then be allowed to regenerate naturally or be seeded with wildflowers.

The approach also limits the potential for aggressive grasses, dock and nettle to overpower wildflowers, which regularly happens on verges covered in topsoil, often requiring intensive cutting regimes.

The decision follows the success of projects like the Weymouth Relief Road in Dorset, where native wildflowers have thrived on chalk verges. The area is now home to half of the butterflies in the UK, including the small blue, Britain’s smallest. The roadsides require minimal maintenance, and large sections have not been cut in 10 years since wildflower seeds were sown, which has also reduced costs.

“Verges will look different under this approach. They’ll be a lot more natural looking. It wouldn’t just be rye grass. It’s going to be more varied and colourful. And hopefully a lot more vibrant,” said Ben Hewlett, Highways England environmental adviser.