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How Traffic is Killing our British Red Squirrels, Hedgehogs and Other Wildlife

There are now 41.3 million cars in the UK... 40 million high-speed metal juggernauts that animals have no chance of adapting to, or avoiding. 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.

By Myles Pinkney

Traffic is Endangering the British Red Squirrel

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 British red squirrels 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 41.7% of Scottish and British red squirrel deaths according to researchers (Simpson et al., 2013). Why is more not being done to protect them from traffic?

Compassionate Conservation Solutions for Scottish and British Red Squirrel Deaths

Signs like these help to remind drivers that squirrels are present

  • Signs

The Lake District and the Isle of Wight are among the last strongholds in England where they benefit from red squirrel signage to warn drivers of their presence.  However, signage only has limited impact. 

british red squirrel using a rope bridge
A rope bridge, and in the bottom left one of its users!

  • Rope Bridges

A simple rope bridge strung across a road and attached to trees might prove to be a 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, a scottish rewilding charity, 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 so many lives.

  • Citizens Tracking of Wildlife Road Deaths 

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. The Road Lab enables you to log the exact location of wildlife road deaths online or using their app, ‘Project Splatter’. The aim of this citizen science project is to quantify the numbers of what wildlife is killed where and when.

Traffic-Related Hedgehog Deaths

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.

Compassionate Conservation Solutions for Hedgehog Deaths

a hedgehog access hole in a garden fence
A hedgehog access hole in a garden fence, these can be as simple as a cut-out hole or made into a feature

  • Holes in fences

So, what can you do right now? In time for next spring, try cutting a 5-inch hole in your fence or gate to ensure hedgehogs can move between gardens more easily rather than straying onto roads.

  • Hedgehog area speed limits

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 limit, it’s important that we 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. 

a hedgehog crossing sign in the countryside
Signs may help to remind drivers to look our for hedgehogs in the road

  • Hedgehog area signage 

Relying on the actions of the individual only goes so far, however.  Increasing wildlife signage may raise more awareness, but there will always be a significant portion of the population who choose to ignore them. 

Compassionate Conservation Solutions for Traffic-Related Wildlife Deaths

  • Innovative fencing solutions 

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. Once fences are installed, the hotspots may simply shift, which again emphasizes 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.

  • Wildlife Bridges

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 appreciate a helping hand across our busiest roads, with an estimated 12,000 deer being killed on roads in sparsely populated Scotland alone…

The UK is being put to shame. Sadly, such constructions are few and far between 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?

  • A Call for The Government’s Help

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. 

  • How You Can Avoid Killing Animals on the Road

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.  

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? Sarah Raymond et al. continues in a recent article that hot weather draws reptiles to warm tarmac roads, whilst traffic oblivious 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.

Sources: - Temporal patterns of wildlife roadkill in the UK

Importance of fencing Solar Powered Virtual Fence Nottingham Trent University The Road Lab Citizen Science

Simpson, Victor & Hargreaves, Judith & Butler, Helen & Davison, Nick & Everest, David. (2013). Causes of mortality and pathological lesions observed post-mortem in red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) in Great Britain. BMC veterinary research. 9. 229. 10.1186/1746-6148-9-229.

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