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Save our wildlife - don't drive so fast

3rd July 2017

Brown hare, North Yorkshire

Brown hare, North Yorkshire, photo by HedgehogCycling

An early morning bike ride, in the country lanes of North Yorkshire, is a joy on a sunny summer Sunday. Yesterday, though, that enjoyment was tempered by the frequency with which I rode past fresh animal carcasses.

On a 40-odd mile ride north of Harrogate, I came across countless killed rabbits, three dead hedgehogs, and - to my dismay - a lifeless hare. All these creatures had been sacrificed on the altar of the great god Motocar.

When driving, I've never run down and killed any animals. If I'm on a country lane, particularly late in the evening or in the early morning, I'm aware that there may be wild creatures on the road, and I kill my speed so I don't kill them. It also means that I can stop if there's oncoming traffic, or people walking on the road.

Save our wildlife - don't drive so fast: hedgehogs and hares

Hedgehog at Studley Royal

Hedgehog at Studley Royal, photo by HedgehogCycling

According to the Telegraph (March 2015), the estimated British population of hedgehogs was 36.5 million in the 1950s. By 1995, there were only 1.5 million, and since then, numbers have continued to fall, perhaps by 4% per year. There may be half as many hedgehogs now as in 1995. Part of the problem is habitat loss, and another big factor is being killed by traffic.

The Mammal Society estimates that between 167,000 and 335,000 hedgehogs are killed on the roads each year, which is hugely significant for a population which may be less than 1 million.

The Mammals Trust has sought to understand how many animals are killed on the roads, and how their responses to traffic affect the likelihood of them being run over. In a nightime experiment, they found that on average, hedgehogs reacted to an approaching car when it was 17m away. The hogs were equally likely to run away or freeze. Freezing and curling up into a ball maybe an effective defence against foxes, but not against cars. Even those that run away don't have much time to esape, because they react when the car is close - and if the driver is going very fast, they won't stand a chance.

Not as many hares as hedgehogs are killed by traffic, but nevertheless the population is dwindling. Brown hares have declined by 80% in the last 100 years. This is largely due to the intensification of farming, the disappearance of hay meadows, and the fact that hares aren't protected from being shot at any time of year. The UK population estimate is 817,000

Save our wildlife - don't drive so fast: Watergate Road

Bikes slow down sign, Watergate Road

Someone has put up a sign at the top of Watergate Road, saying 'to bikes - please slow down'. The hill there is quite steep, and at the bottom of the slope is the entrance to Watergate Farm (and its magnificent C17th stonebuilt farmhouse). Clearly, the owners of the farm will be manoeuvering vehicles and farm equipment in and out of their property at times, and perhaps cows too. Anyone riding a bike needs to be able to slow down or stop in time.

But it's not only people on bikes going too fast. It wasn't a bike that killed a hare down there, it was someone in a car. If you're running over hares or hedgehogs, I suggest you're going too fast. You should go at a speed which allows you to stop when there's a hazard. Cars have better brakes than bikes, but cars also go faster than bikes, and car drivers' reaction times are no better than bike riders' reaction times.

Save our wildlife - don't drive so fast: cultural problems

The problem is cultural. 60mph is too fast for narrow, windy, country lanes. The speed limit is a limit, not an obligation or a target. You'd never know, the way some people drive.

Should the speed limit be changed? I think it should, on many rural roads, but I can guess what the response of the DfT would be to that suggestion - negative, very likely. 

If the speed limits aren't changed, there needs to be a change in culture and mindset, so that more people drive at a more appropriate speed on rural roads. A government campaign could help bring about a new way of thinking.

The second, and related, cultural problem is the idea that damage done by drivers is just a fact of life, and results in a shrug of the shoulders. Most of us wouldn't injure or kill wildife in any other way than with a vehicle. But some of us drive in a manner which makes it likely. The sight of roadkill is commonplace, and inures us to the idea of death on the road.

Our cultural indifference to violence on the roads extends to humans injured or killed by the drivers of vehicles. They can expect little protection from the courts. Drivers charged with being reckless or careless are often acquitted despite strong evidence, or given lenient sentences such as fines or a few hours' community service.

Save our wildlife - don't drive so fast: in conclusion

We should drive more slowly and carefully on our country roads, then we'll stop the carnage. I'd much rather see beautiful wild animals, alert and alive, than squashed and dead on the road.

5 thoughts on the N-S Cycle Superhighway

A Santander bike hire station near King's Cross

I visited London on a work trip in November, and it was the opportunity to test out the North-South Cycle Superhighway (CS6). My impressions are necessarily superficial - those of a two-journey Big Smoke bicyclist, not a local. Read my 5 thoughts on CS6, and the experience of cycling in London.

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Cavendish & Horses pub, Harrogate

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Hedgehog Sign on Watergate RoadBrown hare

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