Updated: May 9
Much has been made of my Roadkill scavenging habits recently. An article Written by a press agency ended up in papers all over the world- the Daily mail ( I know, the shame) the Mirror, the Metro, the Sun ( Cringe) and even further afield- the New York post, and some paper in India! Go and read them, its hilarious- they got my age wrong by 10 years for starters!
As these papers do, it made the whole idea out to be utterly deranged, and the work of an unhinged madwoman……
Well… Its not. So why do I do it? Well...lots of reasons;
Its free meat- Millions of animals get hit our out roads every year. If you find them fresh, and they are not too damaged, then there is nothing at all wrong with eating it as long as you know what you’re doing. Between roadkill animals (manly pheasants, rabbits, hare and most commonly Muntjac deer, sometimes Roe and larger species such as Red and Fallow. ) and an occasional purchase of a Shot animal, I keep supply most of my meat needs with very little input from the shops. I even have a mincer now- so I can make burgers, meatballs, chilli, bolognaise, Sausages etc… In these difficult times, it all helps, and venison is delicious.
I don’t like waste; These animals have died because we are driving around their home ranges, and though there are initiatives to reduce deaths are particular spots (wildlife crossings, signage fencing etc) there will always be victims.
They may not have died by deliberate action on our part, I would hope nobody is deliberately aiming for them, but the result is the same.
We should use those animals where possible. Especially if it reduces (however minutely) our need for intensively farmed meat.
For me it has another side, I need access to bits of animals that its not always easy to get from the usual sources. I need skins, guts, bones, feet, tendons, antlers, teeth eyeballs Often I would have to dismantle the animal to get at those. If the meat is edible- I’m not going to leave it!
If its not edible ( too damaged, too old) I will leave it for the wildlife but drag it off the road, so that other animals don’t get hurt while tucking in. As a very rough idea, I need approximately 8-9 largish buckskin hides for my winter outfit, and close to 20 furs, maybe more. At least a third of those will probably be supplied from the local roads, and the rest from deer stalkers and pest controllers.
Its also an adventure! Until you’ve climbed through a hedge in the dark and ventured down the verge of a deserted A road in the dead of night, head torch seeking out the flash of exposed white belly fur you spotted in the grass….. you haven’t really lived :P Obviously be safe- park off the road or with hazards on. This may mean turning round and going back, it may mean walking a fair way, especially on faster more dangerous roads. You may have to walk some or most of the way along the top of a verge, and drop down onto your target- Just don't take silly risks. Use a torch, and if necessary wear a Hi vis vest. How do I know its fresh? Rigor mortis;
Rigor mortis is the stiffening of muscles that occurs after death. It can help you gauge how long an animal has been there and whether it is worth picking up. When and animal dies it will be warm and floppy. As it cools, and rigor mortis sets in, it will go stiff. Starting at the extremities, and working its way in. The animal will then be cold and stiff. The rate this happens at depends a bit on ambient temperature, and the size of the animal- the smaller the animal, the quicker it happens. Cold and stiff can still be fine to eat, depending on the ambient temperature and other factors.
Animals that are often hung with the guts in ( pheasants and other game birds, hares etc) can be picked up up to the cold and stiff stage.. if you are really adventurous, like gamey meat and the weather has been cool, even after this- but I wouldn’t. Eventually, after a day or two, rigor will pass and the body will become cold and floppy. It will bloat and start to rot in ernest. – this is obviously not one to eat. But you can still salvage other bits, or come back for bones. Animals such as rabbits, deer etc really need to be found warm so they can be gutted asap, so ideally stick to the ‘warm and floppy’ stage.
Also be aware that in lager animals that hold the heat for longer, the bacteriological action that causes the guts to bloat unpleasantly can occur very very fast- even before rigor mortis is fully set in.
If you want to salvage the skin, it really needs to be no older than 'cold and stiff' especially if you are wanting to keep the fur intact. If you want to make leather, its much less critical, but be extremely careful handling decomposing skins- blood poisoning is a serious and likely possibility.
Eyes- ( assuming they are still present- corvids will often peck them out) are they fresh and still clear or are they dried and clouded. Clear fresh eyes =good. Clear fresh, still wet eyes= VERY good. Dried slightly dried out, slightly clouded = possibly ok……. Dried out wrinkled eyeball= not good.
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This picture shows a deer that is freshly dead, note the still red blood around the mouth, and the shiny wet eyes. the cloudiness is due to an injury that had rendered the deer blind.
Bloating The bacteria in the animals Guts don’t know its dead. They continue the job of breaking down whatever they can, and in doing so they produce gas. They can also produce toxins- which can make us ( especially if you aren’t used to eating game and roadkill) quite unwell. The carcass bloats. The meat becomes ‘tainted’ and it is not good to eat. On ruminants i.e. deer, this can happen very very quickly, it’s the reason hunted deer are usually gutted ( gralloched) within minutes of death. Meat from an animal that has started to bloat will not taste nice. I have eaten it, usually stewed for a long time… but its not great, and not worth the effort unless you really are starving. If meat is just a bit strong, a soaking in salted water can help draw out the unpleasant flavour, but I would only do this with pheasant, rabbit etc. it doesn’t mean the skin and other parts aren’t potentially salvageable too though.
Damage and injuries Ideally you want animals that are as undamaged as possible. A deer that has been clipped by a car and died quickly from a head injury is going to be a lot easier and more rewarding to deal with that one that has been broadsided by a lorry… If the guts are pierced.. its probably not worth it. The bacteria that can be found in the guts include Eschera Coli and other nasties which can make you seriously unwell. Washing meat, is not really going to get rid of the contamination either. And some of the nasties, although killed by cooking, produce toxins which are not. Consider where the main bits of meat are- on birds this is normally the Breast, on quadrupeds it us usually the back legs and ‘saddle’. If those are damaged/ contaminated/ full of haemorrhagic tissue ( ‘blood meat’.. its not worth it, again, unless you’re starving. Blood goes off significantly faster than muscle ( i.e. Meat) so a carcass that has not been bled will quickly become tainted by the taste and toxins of decomposing blood. Sometimes you can take the meat only from the upper side of the carcass, sometimes it will have bled out internally, leaving very little blood in the meat itself, and sometimes you may be on scene quick enough to bleed the animal. This is done by cutting the throat and hanging the animal upside down, or by making a cut in the neck where the left and right carotids part company... this is especially important with Deer. Less so with smaller animals- getting the guts out quickly is also very important.
Dangers; Disease in the animal; This is a legitimate concern since you won’t have had a chance to observe the animal alive. >Is it in generally good condition? Is it healthy looking- >Check the eyes for any discharge or crusting, >Is the coat in good condition?( animals do moult when the seasons change, and they can look a bit motheaten for a while) >Is it unusually skinny? >Any weird swellings or lumps or scabby areas? >Unusually bad case of fleas/ lice/ tics When you gut it, check the liver. Livers should be smooth, dark red…any blisters, lumps, bumps weird textures my indicate illness.
There are one or two hard to verify stories of peoples dogs being poisoned by eating the liver of a roadkill deer which as it turned out, had been euthanised by a vet. This is not a very common occurrence, and usually seems to involve the liver- which makes sense because it is where toxins ( and medicines) end up. I would recommend not eating any roadkill animals’ offal anyway, and avoid feeding it to your dogs. ( the heart is the only offal I regularly salvage) I have not heard of anyone having a problem from eating meat ….. but be careful. In the UK, if a deer is hit but not killed, a vet may be called, but more often it’s a person from the local Humane dispatch list- i.e. a person with a gun- Vets usually take too long to arrive, and waiting for the RSPCA is a waste of time. Most of our UK deer are small enough to move, and I would hope that the carcass would be dragged away from the road some distance as well. The exception would be our red deer, which can weigh as much as 240kg ! ( 530lb) and are often immovable and are therefore the most likely to have been euthanised, and not moved from the side of the road.
Injured, not dead….
It doesn’t happen often, in a trial of strength between a tonne of car and an animal, even a large deer usually comes off badly but if you are a user of the roads, you WILL see an animal hit, or find one that has been hurt, but not killed.
I personally think it is your job, as a responsible road user, and humane human to know what to do. Of course taking it to a Vet may be an option, but often it just prolongs suffering unnecessarily. Dispatching a small animal ( rabbit, pheasant, Pidgeon, duck>> NOT SQUIRRELS) is fairly simple; Wring its neck.
How to dispatch small animals
( there are other ways, many of them- this is my preferred way and is pretty foolproof, but practice on something that is already dead a few times to get the hang of it.
1) grab the animal, don’t mess about. Try to end up with one hand holding its legs ( or for smaller birds, around its shoulders or wings) and your dominant hand free.
2) Put the first two fingers of your dominant hand either side of its head so that the back of its head is in the palm of your hand.
3) in one motion, bend its head back as far as it will go, so that you dislocate its neck, at at the same time push away from the rest of its body. You should feel the joint ‘go’ and a stretching. If you have done the job properly- there will no be a 1-2” gap in its neck where there is no bone or meat- just skin. The animal may continue to twitch- but as long as there’s a gap, its neck is broken, it is dead.
Dispatching larger animals ( or tougher ones like minks, polecats, squirrels) gets more difficult.- foxes badgers, hares, geese need whacking over the back of the head with something hard- a tyre iron or similar. Its not nice, and you have to mean it, but it is quick. No animal wants to die, and even a small animal, maddened by fear or pain can injure you, so be safe.
Make sure you have actually killed it ( not just knocked it out) by checking for movement, breathing and finally any ocular reflex-brush the eyelashes with a bit of grass and see if there’s any movement, and finally open the eye and shine a light in it- does the pupil shrink in response? Although its unlikely, be aware that if it wasn't dead, and only stunned, it could spring to like and lurch to its feet, so beware of possible danger from antlers.
Deer are are a serious proposition- if you attempt to dispatch one without the proper tools and expertise you could get seriously hurt. Smaller deer can sometimes be killed as above, with a blow to the BACK of the head, especially if it’s a female with no antlers. Or you can cut the throat. A deer's main weapons are its feet, and antlers ( teeth in the case of muntjac and CWD) so it is very hard to disable all of those at once and still have a hand free to do the deed. I would not recommend it. Legalities
The old of quoted wisdom of 'its ok to pick it up as long as you didn't hit it yourself' is not true.
If you go round deliberately hitting animals you will fall under various other laws, careless driving etc as well as generally being a heinous person and presumably one with a very battered car... Technically the animal belongs to whoever's land its on. i.e. the whoever owns the land the road is laid across. That could be a farmer, the council or some other landowner. In reality, in most cases no body is going to care if you take a roadkill away. Disposal of road victims usually falls to the council, so you are saving them a job and well as removing a potential obstacle and eyesore. Some protected animals such as badger
s, otters, red squirrels, and birds of prey fall under other laws, but it is not as some ill informed people ( including the RSPB themselves insist) 'Illegal even to touch them!!' There is a useful little app called project splatter which uses reports of roadkill to inform future signage and animal crossing measures as well as monitoring wildlife populations, its definitely worth using if you are keeping an eye on your local roads.
Lastly...what should I keep in the car?! Sods law dictates that you will mostl likely find top notch roadkill when you are heading to a party/ in a hurry/ have no space in the car/ etc etc, but if you have these basic things you may still be able to take advantage of the situation. Be aware though, that a 'Roadkill kit' is worryingly similar to a 'serial killer' kit so behave.. and don't get pulled over! 1) a knife, so you can gut and bleed the animal at the roadside, and potentially skin it too. I deally not a folding one because they are impossible to clean and not comfortable to use. You may also want to remove some bits and leave others such as salvaging antlered heads but leaving tainted meat. 2) Strong binbags- to contain leakage. best are the big tough ones used for garden waste. A few carrier bags for smaller animals are good too. 3) Water and wipes for cleaning your hands afterwards 4) some sort of apron if you are routinely travelling in civilised clothes 5)headtorch for visibility and because as mentioned above, sods law means you'll find a prize animal in the middle of the night when you want to get home to bed. Head torch so that you don't need to touch it while up to your elbows in gore... 6) HI VIS vest for safety when walking up the sides of roads in the dark 8) Rope and string can be useful for hanging the animal up tho make gutting and bleeding easier, or for tying bin bags shut. It can also be used to close off the ends of the intestine and the esophagus when you gut larger animals.
If you want to know how to deal with a carcass , I have some useful videos on my youtube channel.