Traffic: One Of The UK’s Biggest Wildlife Killers Slips Under The Radar
Unsurprisingly, traffic accidents are rapidly becoming one of the biggest threats that our wildlife now faces. In the UK, collisions with vehicles are the leading cause of death for barn owls, badgers, otters and red squirrels. So why does this not register as a research and action priority for wildlife conservation?
Red Squirrels - Hidden Threats and Easy Solutions
Red squirrels have sadly seen a catastrophic drop in numbers from 3.5 million to just 140,000 in just under 150 years. Most reside in Scotland, leaving as few as 15,000 living in England. Red squirrels heavily rely on wooded corridors to find their food, meaning they have to cross busy roads to move between increasingly isolated woodlands.
Traffic accidents are causing 53% of unnatural red squirrel deaths according to The Interactive Centre for Scientific Research About Squirrels, rising to as high as 88% in suburban areas. With their numbers so low, it seems strange that more is not being done to protect them from their greatest threat?
The Lake District and the Isle of Wight are among the last strongholds in England where red squirrels benefit from road signage to warn drivers of their presence. However, signage only has limited impact.
A simple rope bridge strung across a road and attached to trees might prove to be that lifeline for a squirrel to reach new food and avoid having to dance with death every time they venture out. And yet such easy, low cost solutions are rarely embraced.
Red squirrels are proven to selectively choose to cross a rope bridge rather than to cross an open road. Trees for Life installed a bridge over a road near Shieldaig in the north-west highlands of Scotland in 2017, with camera trap footage glimpsing its regular usage. This £300 bridge is an inexpensive way to save many lives.
Citizen Science Projects Provide Inroad to Help
With an increase in citizen science projects, we are beginning to have a clearer idea of animal populations and distribution, but also more sadly, road death occurrences. ‘Project Splatter,' enables you to log the exact location of road deaths online. Now renamed The Road Lab, the aim of this citizen science project is to quantify what wildlife is killed where.
Through monitoring like this we can learn that hedgehog road deaths peak in July when young and vulnerable hedgehogs are leaving their birthplaces to forage alone. Knowing exactly where roadkill hotspots are will greatly help targeted approaches to tackle this problem.
Hedgehogs have suffered dreadfully in recent years, with numbers down by 30% compared to ten years ago. People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) statistics show it’s as much as 75% compared to 22 years ago. That would put them on the verge of extinction within 30 years.
Their method of rolling into a ball makes hedgehogs especially vulnerable. As many as 335,000 hedgehogs might be killed every year directly because of traffic. So, what can you do to help? Cutting a 5-inch hole in your fence or gate will ensure hedgehogs can move between gardens more easily rather than straying onto roads.
We must also change how we think. We have a 20mph speed limit for areas around schools, so in the same vein, we must surely install strict speed limits to areas of particular wildlife concern. It is speciesist to carry on as we are with no regard for our wildlife and ignore the biodiversity crisis that we have created.
Regardless of the official speed limit, it’s particularly important to watch our speed when passing woodland or other wildlife-rich habitat, whilst always making sure we use our main beams as much as we can at night. However, relying on the actions of the individual only goes so far. Increasing wildlife signage is essential but even this will be ignored by a significant portion of the population. So what other solutions are there?
General Solutions to the UK Road Crisis
Trying to fence entire stretches of road is time-consuming and costly, but with hotspot data gathered in recent years, we could develop a more targeted approach. Animals can move easily around fences that are too short and may then get killed at the fence ends — an issue known as the “fence-end effect.” The fences therefore need to be long enough to reduce this danger. Of course, once fences are installed, the collision hotspots may simply shift, which again emphasises the need
for constant monitoring and adjustments.
A solar-powered opto-acoustical virtual fencing has been trialed along a 4.5km stretch of road in Tasmania. The linked units produce auditory warning signals along with flashing blue and yellow lights when triggered by approaching headlights. A promising low-cost alternative to fencing, but studies fail to agree on its effectiveness. We desperately need to trial this across more areas to see if it works.
Road fencing is often deployed alongside wildlife bridges. Wildlife bridges, or ‘green bridges’ are particularly effective ways of reducing wildlife deaths. In Canada, wildlife bridges are used in Banff, proving to be particularly effective at preventing genetic isolation in grizzly bears. As early as 1988 the Netherlands started building the 47 wildlife bridges that they now have.
A wildlife bridge crosses the A21 at Scotney Castle in Kent in the High Weald Area of Natural Beauty (AONB), which has been used by our threatened dormice population. Deer, badgers and foxes are the large mammals that would greatly benefit from a helping hand across our busiest roads, with an estimated 12,000 deer being killed on roads in sparsely populated Scotland alone…
Sadly, such constructions are few and far between in the UK because of the high initial cost of building them. But being in the midst of a biodiversity crisis, is this a cost we can afford to ignore?
Charities are already doing a great job at monitoring traffic deaths to reduce the hotspot areas but our Government needs to enforce wildlife speed limits and increase fencing and wildlife bridges.
Wildlife Knowledge Saves Lives
However, the final responsibility lies with us. Being aware of the seasonal and weather variations which increase the likelihood of hitting an animal could make a significant difference.
SOURCE Did you know that amphibian roadkill increases after higher humidity and rainfall, whilst high river flow causes otters to cross roads rather than using channels underneath? And hot weather draws reptiles to warm tarmac roads, whilst traffic unaware young birds and mammals take to the roads in the spring.
Understanding these variations, whilst watching our speed and remaining vigilant when crossing or running parallel to wildlife habitat will inevitably decrease our chances of hitting an animal.
We have paved our roads to virtually everywhere on the planet, believing it is our right to go wherever we like, but animals must also be allowed that right.