Here in the UK, it’s fair to say we are a nation of animal lovers. From spending an estimated £300 million on bird-feeding products annually to tuning in religiously to the latest David Attenborough nature documentaries, our interest in wildlife is expressed in a huge variety of ways, and many of us try to do what we can to conserve the natural world around us.
Unfortunately, however, the realities of living in the modern world are often at odds with this benevolent impulse, and our roads in particular can represent a particular danger to our furry and feathery friends.
According to The Mammal Society, an astonishing number of animals – estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands – are killed on Britain’s roads each year, with the work of volunteers identifying that hedgehogs, badgers, owls, kestrels and foxes are particularly vulnerable. The result is that certain wild animals cannot sustain sufficient breeding populations near motorways and trunk roads, and that the numbers of certain mammals and birds of prey are suppressed on a local scale.
This has obvious implications for the conservation of Britain’s wildlife, but animal collisions on the road are also a safety and cost issue. In the UK, several people are killed a year by hitting deer on the roads, and there is a significant economic expense to contend with as well (with an average of £24,000 claimed on car insurance for deer-related damage).
Taken together, there is a strong, multifaceted argument for attempting to reduce animal collisions, and schemes have been rolled out both here and abroad to do so. The ways in which we organise our roads are broadly similar across the globe (including through the services we provide in road marking, road studs and specialist area marking), but alongside some common-sense measures, there has also been some creative thinking needed to keep both road users and wildlife safe.
Wildlife-Protecting Road Signs
Using road signs to warn people of the danger of wildlife is a tactic deployed around the world to protect animals and drivers. In the USA, for example, there are signs to alert drivers where snakes may bask on the hot tarmac, or warn that moose may attempt to cross the road. Where certain populations are under particular pressure, such as in Hawai’i with the endangered nene (a bird similar to a goose), road signs are also used in conservation efforts to encourage drivers to slow down and take extra care.
Here in the UK, the use of wildlife road signs was extended under former transport secretary Chris Grayling. In 2017, 629 people were injured in accidents involving an animal in the road (excluding horses) and 4 people were killed. These accidents weren’t only caused by the impact itself, but by drivers instinctively trying to avoid killing the animal in their path – taking evasive action that ultimately proved dangerous.
From a safety perspective, it became clear that drivers not only need to be aware of the potential presence of large animals like deer, but smaller wildlife such as badgers, hedgehogs and rabbits. New road signs featuring a (rather cute!) hedgehog were created in 2019 in order to fulfil this aim, with Chris Grayling encouraging local authorities and wildlife groups to identify wildlife-related accident blackspots where they would be most useful.
However, in 2022 the AA and Badger Trust collaborated to call on the Department of Transport to install more road signage to alleviate this issue, suggesting that the rollout may not have been as comprehensive as necessary.
Green Bridges, Overpasses and Underpasses
One of the most extensive networks of “wildlife on the roads” infrastructure can be seen on Christmas Island, where the annual migration of red crabs making their way from the forest to the sea results in millions of intrepid crustaceans navigating the island’s roads. With so many being crushed and generally causing havoc on their yearly journey, the island has invested extensively in a crab-centred transport network that leads them safely away from places of danger.
In other areas, road mortalities are an existential threat to some species, such as the diminutive Florida Key deer. With it becoming clear that wildlife fences alone can simply move the issue of road mortalities to another area, “green bridges” are increasingly being seen as a safety and conversation solution that helps wildlife while keeping road users out of harm’s way.
Described by National Geographic as “remarkably effective around the world in decreasing collisions between cars and animals”, green overpasses and underpasses are being built to offer a safe way for animals to move across once-unpassable road networks and connect wildlife populations. These bridges are also planted with native greenery, bolstering biodiversity and providing a home for insects.
Studies demonstrate that green bridges significantly reduce the environmental impact of roads without the vast expense of rerouting or retrofitting the road network. This has led Natural England (the government’s conservation agency) to call for far more to be built here in the UK, which has far fewer green bridges than can be found in Europe and North America. As the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, a green bridge scheme could be particularly valuable.
As mentioned above, using fencing to keep wildlife off the road isn’t always effective in isolation (as it is impractical to fence the road entirely and wildlife that is determined to cross will simply walk elsewhere), but it can be a useful part of wider protective schemes. For example, fencing can be used to encourage animals to safer crossing spaces such as green bridges, or be used to block particularly dangerous areas of road.
Another scheme, which has been instituted in countries such as the Netherlands, is to install “virtual fences” that scare animals away from the road. These fences use sensors to identify when an animal is close, emitting flashing lights and high-frequency sounds in order to frighten them away. While not universally successful, this has proved particularly effective in keeping shy animals such as deer away from highways, which is extremely important in reducing large animal collisions and road fatalities.
Across the globe, more needs to be done to help animals transverse the environment safely. As both a conservation and safety issue, finding solutions for wildlife on the road should be considered a key priority, and it is encouraging to see various bodies come together to innovate new ways to protect both animals and drivers.