Crossfire // Germany
I smell it before I see it. At times it’s the ferruginous scent of fresh blood spilt on the asphalt and at others, it’s the dense stench of rotting flesh.
Then the carcass comes into view, or whatever is left of it. A hare, a kite, a salamander… Today it is a roe deer, still fresh, with bloody froth curdling in its mouth and a handful of fat white ticks leaving its lifeless body.
Occasionally I also discover swollen lumps lying under the bushes of the margin, covered with flies and with an effervescent tangle of maggots burrowing in its guts.
And sometimes, if death was instantaneous and the animal has been squashed right there, in the middle of the road, then I will find nothing more than a macabre decal stuck on the tar: a pattern of skin, feathers or scales; mere remnants of the exuberant animal it once was.
“… the crossfire on our roads.”
Encounters like today’s are reminders of our own helplessness as cyclists. Pedalling along these same roads and equally exposed to the blasts fired by drunken, enraged or careless drivers.
Because for cyclists, the risk of an accident is twenty-five times higher than for those who drive a vehicle. So much so that every year around 2,160 cyclists are killed on European roads and 32,000 more are seriously injured.
But if instead of being a cyclist we were a roe deer or a kestrel, the statistics would be even more against us: every year 194 million birds and 29 million mammals succumb to the crossfire on our roads.
And these figures, which are shocking in themselves, do not even fully represent the true scale of the tragedy. For at this time of the year, with every roe deer or kestrel killed, I see the fawn left orphaned in the forest and the chick that will starve to death in the nest.
Germany’s wildlife mortality due to collisions with vehicles ranks among the highest in Europe. A continent in which 50% of the territory lies within 1.5km of the nearest road or railway line.
If we take into account that some 281 million vehicles currently use these lanes, we discover that on average 80% of European drivers inevitably end up killing a bird or mammal every year. For amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates there is not even any data.
So let me repeat: 194 million birds and 29 million mammals every year. To put this number in perspective, if these were people, we would be killing 50% of the EU’s population currently alive, every year.
“… 80% of European drivers inevitably end up killing a bird or mammal every year.”
“… torn to pieces under the blades and wheels of tractors.”
In recent years, roadkill has become the leading cause of death in European wildlife, far ahead of deaths from electrocution by power lines, hunting or disease, and the result of this ecocide can be observed clearly on the dark asphalt.
But invisible to the eyes of many, hidden in the vegetation, just where we would expect animals to finally be able to live in peace, lurks exactly the same danger.
Every summer, in the fertile grasslands of the old continent, countless animals are torn to pieces under the blades and wheels of tractors.
Of all possible victims, fawns are the most vulnerable.
In Germany, farmers must ensure by law that there are no animals in the pasture before they start mowing.
But in practice, this is either not done or terribly ineffective, as it is virtually impossible to find a roe deer crouching in the tall grass just by walking across the field.
Fawns are born with the instinct that no matter what happens, they must not move. And precisely this immobility in combination with their mottled backs makes them invisible to the farmers until it is too late.
We have come to the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern region, where a group of organic farmers and stockbreeders have decided to take their tracking technique to the next level, optimising it to eliminate any possibility of collision.
“… makes them invisible to the farmers until it is too late.”
“… the positions of those indigo-coloured warm spots…”
The day breaks amidst buzzing and mosquito bites. There are so many insects around our heads that we can barely make out the thrumming of the drone as it flies overhead. But we know it has just passed us because we can see ourselves on the screen, or at least we recognise the heat we radiate thanks to the thermal camera attached to the drone.
The screen also shows the buggy in which Agnes is now travelling with one of the farmers, both equipped with a canvas cage and a large forked stick.
And it is to them that the drone operator radios positions: the positions of those indigo-coloured warm spots, no bigger than a few pixels, which must be approached with great care.
Three roe deer calves have been rescued this morning. Three roe deer that have escaped a certain death under the blades of the mowers.
But what are three roe deer compared to the hundreds or thousands that at this very moment are being gutted in so many other fields?
Today, to us, these three calves mean everything.
“Three roe deer calves have been rescued this morning”
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