by Dan Joyce

Cycling on Britain’s roads is a great way to see the local wildlife. The only trouble is identifying it. Spotter’s guides talk about specific markings or distinctive calls. But the last bird I saw looked like it had been flattened into sedimentary rock. It could have been anything, even an archaeopteryx, except that it was very small. Another tick against ‘small chirpy bird’, then.

You don’t see so many of those. Crows, on the other hand, they’re everywhere - a flattened lump of black feathers sometimes seen in the company of oryctolagus cuniculus, or rabbit. Pigeons are common too; seagulls less so.

Among mammals, the most common tarmac visitor is erinaceus europeaeus, or hedgehog, which is recognisable not so much for its spines but for the fact that it seems to possess the intestines of a much larger animal. Squirrels are easy; it’s the tail. Foxes, rats (ha!), hares and ‘small brownish rodents’ are other animals I’ve checked off. Once I saw a wire-haired terrier; I’d taken it for a piece of carpet at first. Saddest of all, though, was the solitary badger in North Wales, lying huge in the gutter like it was asleep, but stripped of life and dignity. I almost left my roadkill notebook in my pocket out of respect.

Actually, I’ve made some of this up. I don’t really count dead animals like Eddie Stobart lorries when I’m riding along - mostly because I’d lose count. Someone has, though. Between 2000 and 2001, the British Mammal Society collaborated with the Hawk and Owl Trust to compile a national survey of road deaths. Hedgehogs, badgers and foxes made up the bulk of mammal deaths, while tawny owls, kestrels and barn owls made up most of the dead birds of prey.

From the survey, they estimate that cars kill the following animals each year in Britain: 100,000 foxes, 100,000 hedgehogs, 50,000 badgers and 30,000-50,000 deer. As a proportion of their pre-breeding populations, badgers, foxes and barn owls are being culled the worst. (By way of comparison, hunting kills about 10,000 foxes each year, which is something for the hunt sabs to think about if the minibus bumps over Renard on the way home…)

By any standards, that’s a lot of roadkill. As a laissez-faire vegetarian in a nation of omnivores, roadkill doesn’t upset me any worse than McDonald’s. Maybe there’s even a moral argument for scraping it up and eating it, since it only died by accident and not design. Is there good eating on old Brock? I don’t know, and to be honest wouldn’t care to try it. Even if it were stamped out into energy bars, I know I couldn’t take a bite without the Charlton Heston in me screaming ‘Soylent Green is badgers!’

And maybe the accidental death tag is rather too easy to hang on roadkill. While the standard line in driving advice is ‘don’t swerve to miss a small animal, because you might hit an oncoming car or crash; just run over it’, there can’t be many drivers who turn the ignition with carnage on their minds. Yet there are echoes here of all those other accidental deaths - of people. Traffic accident, hit by a car, tragic, like an act of God. The word accident tumbles out so easily. Sometimes there are accidents; generally it’s somebody’s fault.

Animals, of course, aren’t responsible for their actions. People are. Blaming an animal for ‘just sitting there’, or ‘dashing out kamikaze-style’ is just anthropomorphising it to make you feel better. It’s a deer, for ****’s sake, what did you expect? The Mammal Society’s National Survey of Road Deaths concluded that: ‘High traffic speed increased the likelihood of many mammal species, including fox, badger and roe deer, and also the tawny owl, falling victim to vehicles as it reduces the time available for drivers and animals to react to danger.’

Well, well, here we are again: speed kills. Perhaps if we reduced the speed limit on unmarked country lanes to 30mph, there’d be less British wildlife smeared across our roads.

Cyclists aren’t saints, yet we are responsible for a very small number of wildlife deaths. I’ve swallowed a few insects - although never a rare butterfly, happily. I’ve heard of weasels messily bisected by spokes, missed many a startled pheasant, and I’ve ridden gingerly down a country lane where small rabbits came zipping out of the hedgerows like they were shot from a cannon. By and large, though, cyclists don’t flatten much.

We just get to see the ugly aftermath: roadkill in glaring close-up. That’s probably why, as a cyclist, I’m banging on about it. On a bike, you’re more aware of it than the guy zipping quickly past it in his car.

It’s not all bad news. Sometimes, just sometimes, you’ll see the animals alive. And that can be breathtaking. I’ve seen a muntjack standing stock still in the bracken mere metres away. I’ve had hawks keep pace with me above. I’ve seen stoats, weasels; rabbits beyond number; a huge buzzard flapping lazily up from a kill. Once, out cycling in the Scottish Borders at dawn, I saw a shape gliding silently through the morning mist across silvered fields: a barn owl.

© Dan Joyce
Cycling Plus, December 2003