Thursday, 14 October 2010

Roads take a grim toll

The predominantly rural nature of Norfolk, with its scattered villages and small market towns, places us within touching distance of much of our wildlife. However, the fragmented nature of our settlements does mean that we depend upon a network of roads to support us as we go about our daily lives. Roads and wildlife are not easy companions and the growing volume of traffic takes a heavy toll on the countryside.

The most direct evidence of this impact comes in the form of the countless mangled corpses that litter our roads. At this time of the year, with the crops recently harvested, I often see dead rats, together with Rabbits, Brown Hares and Pheasants. I also see larger mammals, like Muntjac and Chinese Water Deer, Red Fox and Badger. Just the other week I saw two adult Badgers dead by the road. Up to a third of the county’s young Barn Owls may be killed by motor traffic during their first year of life, a heavy toll on a species whose breeding population underwent a significant decline in the past. There are some stretches of road within the county that seemingly pose a particular threat to the owls which attempt to nest nearby.

The impact of roads, however, goes beyond the direct physical consequences of a collision. Roads can act as a barrier – especially the larger ones – limiting the movements of small mammals, amphibians and invertebrates, reluctant to cross this artificial microhabitat devoid of cover. Pollutants from our vehicles and the litter that irresponsible drivers and passengers fling from their cars can harm the environment and the wildlife it supports. The stub of a cigarette can cause a fire, destroying wildlife habitat and resulting in the loss of species. Then there are the more subtle effects. For example, research has revealed that songbirds may be unable to maintain breeding territories alongside busy roads because the traffic noise drowns out their territorial song, effectively robbing them of the means to attract a mate and defend an area in which to raise a family.

Some of the impact associated with roads can be reduced through careful planning and design. The construction of special underpasses or overpasses can provide corridors of natural vegetation through which wild creatures can safely cross the road. Screening vegetation can reduce the distance over which traffic noise can be heard and careful management of the verges can reduce their attractiveness to small mammals and hence to predators like owls.

We, as drivers, can also make a contribution by being more aware of what is around us as we drive and by keeping our speed down, affording us more time to spot and avoid wildlife on the road.

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