One thing I found really hard to get used to about living in the country is the sheer number of dead animals littering the highway. I can barely drive from my house to the shops without feeling that familiar bump-squish under my wheels. Rabbits I can just about cope with – their numbers are so vast, and their presence on the verges and the gardens so ubiquitous that I can reconcile myself to the idea that a few fewer might not be a bad thing; it helps, too, that no social occasion in the countryside is complete without a long rant about how rabbits are a terribly bad thing and do untold damage to crops. There’s nothing like a pair of sticky-up ears and a fluffy tail to bring out the passionate orator in your average rural dinner guest.
Badgers and, especially, deer are frankly terrifying if you come face to face (bonnet to snout?) with them; early one morning I came across a stag standing in the middle of the road, proud and glistening in the pale sunlight like a scene from the lid of a shortbread tin. I have never braked so hard in my life, but the stag regarded my terrified face with cool disdain. Yeah, try running into me, he seemed to be saying. See who comes off worse.
But the kills that really make me squeal and swerve dangerously are the birds. Now the rabbit has a bad reputation for poor road sense but nothing, I tell you, nothing is as stupid at the roadside, nothing is so likely to meet an untimely end on the edge of a bumper than the pheasant. They may have been specifically bred for their kamikaze qualities; although I am not tempted by the idea of shooting for sport, I can’t really imagine that these dunce-like birds offer the average sportsman or woman too much of a challenge. It is frankly more of a challenge to avoid them, in my experience.
I do my best, though; I am a pretty adept bird-swerver and at least 75% of the time I can manage to get the pigeon in my slip stream, or brake sharply enough to allow the pheasant to continue its leisurely stroll across the road. (No doubt a temporary reprieve; I imagine most of the cars round here are not so soft-hearted or, at least, not so concerned about putting a dent in their bonnet. A clapped out car is a badge of honour on these lanes.)
But this particular morning, I was not so successful. Perhaps I was distracted or maybe it was the lack of sleep, or perhaps I was just driving a touch too fast and playing the radio slightly too loud, but as I came over the crest of the hill to face the familiar tweedledum-and-tail shape of the Commonly Stupid Pheasant – well, it was too late to brake. (It’s not like I can claim the bird was camouflaged. That’s another thing about shooting pheasants. Surely it would be more challenging as a sport if they weren’t bred so big and in such garish colours. Sparrow shooting – now that would be a sport worthy of the name.)
It was only when I got out of the car to inspect the damage that I realised that I had managed to not only clonk the pheasant into the verge but – horrible sight – I had also squashed a squirrel under my wheels too.
The sheer horror of the sight of the fluffy squirrel and its almost severed tail, the guilt at having caused not one, but two, untimely deaths in the space of a second or two, and – perhaps strongest of all – the enormous irritation at being stuck in the bloody countryside with suicidal birds and squirrels that don’t realise that they should be in trees and not on roads: the combined effect of these emotions, and a range of others, less distinct, made my legs buckle. Sitting on the rough grass of the verge, listening to the ticking of my hazard lights and the far-off rush of traffic from the bypass, I wept for the dead pheasant, for the dead squirrel (though they were stupid, very very stupid, they didn’t deserve to die), and because I was not, right now, sitting in Patisserie Valerie on the Marylebone High Street, where I should be.
STOP PRESS when researching this article (well, looking on Wikipedia, the 21st century equivalent of researching) I discovered the game of Roadkill Bingo – and, suddenly, roadkill had a purpose.