Council workers may have destroyed more than 200 rare flowers by taking a mower to them.

Neighbours were looking forward to the yearly bloom of wild bee orchids on the verge outside their homes. They looked on in horror as the workers, believed to have been employed by West Sussex County Council, cut the flowers down.

The verge, in Mill Hill, Shoreham, is protected by a council scheme.

Resident Stanley Allen, 90, a retired solicitor, said: "Last year, we counted 160 plants and over the last five years it's gone from a phenomenon to something quite exceptional.

"We lobbied West Sussex County Council to get it recognised as part of its notable road verge scheme.

"The place is like a cricket pitch now."

In May last year, the council erected a notice on the patch of land, which measures 25ft by 35ft, explaining the importance of the orchids, which were due to flower early next month. As part of the scheme to protect the flowers, the council said it would only cut the area in the autumn.

Brianne Reeve, a 70-year-old natural history enthusiast from Coombes, near Shoreham, said: "They've gone all around the notice and they've even left some daffodils that shouldn't be there anyway.

"They have literally shaved it to the ground, not like the surrounding areas where they've cut it quite low.

"It's brown and you can almost see the earth. That is the astonishing aspect to it."

Mrs Reeve said because the orchids were cut down just before they flowered, they may not resurface next year.

She said: "We think it's a piece of old downland. In 1999, there was one orchid, in 2000, there were seven and by 2006, there were 150 plus. To have them on this patch of land is amazing."

West Sussex County Council principal ecologist Graham Roberts said: "This is very unfortunate. It was reported to us on Friday. It may be that one of our maintenance people has mowed the area by mistake or someone else might have done it. We are looking into it.

"This is part of our notable road verge scheme, which has enormous benefits for wildlife throughout the county. On the whole, the scheme usually works well and is very effective."

Wild bee orchids favour short chalk turf and are rare in residential areas such as Mill Hill.

What do you think about the council blunder? Let us know below.