This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 23rd February 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 21st February 2018.
One of the less attractive aspects of living in the countryside is the amount of roadkill we see on our byways and highways. I presume that there are more animals killed by vehicles today than when Dad was writing his column 40 years ago, purely because there are now more cars on the road.
Dad remarked in his column of 25th February 1978 that most of the unfortunate victims seemed to be rabbits. Today, I see mainly pheasants and other critters of the feathered variety falling prey to our motors. I don’t know if there are fewer rabbits around, or if there are more game birds roaming our fields and verges, or whether it just happens to be a characteristic of the routes I take. But I will never get used to the sight of a squashed animal in the road, and it turns my stomach every time I pass one.
In days gone by, it is possible that rural folk were more pragmatic about such things, seeing it as just another way of controlling the population of wild creatures. A friend’s dad had no qualms about picking up fresh roadkill which would end up in the stewing pot. I also I remember staying with my French pen pal, and we were in the car when we heard the sickening thud of a poor hare losing the battle with our bumper. Her dad stopped the car, gathered it up, and sure enough, we had it for dinner. To them, it was a sensible and practical way to dispose of the animal, although my sentimental teenage heart ached for the poor thing that was now on my plate. I don’t think I ate very much that night.
But there are serious advocates of the practice of eating fresh roadkill around today, and as long as the animal was not deliberately killed, it is perfectly legal to take it away. Miranda Krestovnikoff, wildlife presenter and president of the RSPB, is well known for feeding roadside kills to her family, and amateur taxidermist and wildlife conservationist John McGowan has lived on a diet of roadkill for more than 30 years, as has Arthur Boyt from Cornwall, who got into trouble for cooking a washed-up dead dolphin (dolphins belong to the Crown). There are resources online which tell you how to butcher your furry finds, but I would imagine you’d need a cast iron stomach and considerable skills if it was to become a regular part of your routine. Mr McGowan recommends heading out just after rush hour for the best, freshest pickings. On the other hand, the Food Standards Agency warns against it, saying that you cannot know how healthy an animal was before it died, and you cannot be entirely certain it does not harbour harmful bacteria such as salmonella, E-coli and clostridium. It seems to me that you have to be sure of your knowledge before venturing out on a roadkill recce.
The Government collects data on animals killed on our roads, and it surprised me to learn that the most commonly reported are deer, with badgers and foxes not too far behind, and then cats and dogs, followed by a whole wildlife menagerie of creatures killed in smaller numbers. There were no rabbits on the list, which covered April – December 2017, but I am presuming this was because they were not reported, as birds were very low in number too, and I’ve definitely seen a lot of them!
I suppose we can take comfort in that, whichever animal comes to that sticky end, in most cases they will not have suffered and will have died mercifully quickly.
A friend suggested that it would be useful to write a book to help you identify roadkill by the characteristics of whatever is left behind, so you know whether that one feather sticking up out of the sorry mess was a pheasant or grouse, or that the furry ear belonged to a hare or rabbit. She decided it should include instructions on how to skin, pluck and prepare the animals, alongside recipes and tips on how to asses whether it was fit for human consumption. My first response was, “Why would anyone want to identify roadkill?” But having researched this piece, I now know there are a fair few people who would genuinely be interested!
Her idea has yet to come to fruition, and I’m still not sure about the wisdom of stopping in our roads to gather up dead creatures, as we could end up being roadkill ourselves!