Roadkill: sickening or sustainable?
20th February, 2012
The idea of eating meat sourced from the roadside - whether deer, pheasant, fox or even otter - might sound revolting to you but for some, it's a gastronomic opportunity and a way of avoiding factory farmed meat
If the idea of nibbling on something you found dead on a roundabout leaves you feeling queasy, you might want to take a deep breath. Because, you may be surprised to learn, some people consider roadkill a delicacy. As unappetising as it might sound, growing numbers are switching the source of their red meat from farms to roads and getting stuck in to the delights of ‘drive-by cooking.’ Why? Aficionados claim that roadkill is a cheap and ecologically sustainable source of fresh meat, both nutritious and, if you can swallow it, delicious too. ‘People think it’s just tarmac jam that you have to scrape off the road but it’s just not like that at all,’ insists roadkill connoisseur Alison Brierley. ‘When I first started, I had the same issues in my head but when you start learning about it, you start to think: this is actually better, it’s better for you. And it’s better for the environment.’
‘The number of animals killed on UK roads every year is astronomical,’ points out conservationist Jonathan McGowan, who has been eating roadkill since he was a teenager. The Mammal Society estimates that some 100,000 foxes, 50,000 badgers and between 30,000 and 50,000 deer are killed on UK roads every year. ‘I barely have to drive 20 miles to fill my freezer. Ignoring all this great meat just seems wasteful to me,’ McGowan continues. Bushcraft and foraging expert Fergus Drennan agrees. ‘The question I ask myself when I find roadkill is, “here is some meat: do I need it, and is it good and safe to eat?”’
There do seem to be some genuine benefits to be had by taking your meat from the roadside. Along with the cost advantage – where else might you find 120lbs of fresh venison for free? – the species most often killed on Britain’s roads, rabbit, pheasant, and squirrel among them, are naturally vitamin-rich, lean, and low in saturated fat. What’s more, since wild animals are entirely free from the antibiotics, hormones and steroids found in factory-farmed meat, eating roadkill might even be good for you. But if you’re still struggling to digest the idea, consider the moral arguments: roadkill just might be the most humane source of meat there is. ‘Ethically, I find eating roadkill much easier to swallow,’ Brierley laughs. ‘With roadkill, you know it hasn’t been through the factory farming system, it has lived a totally wild, organic life, and it has never been shoved in the back of a van and transported miles to a slaughterhouse.’ Even PETA is grudgingly supportive.
The legality of roadkill, however, is something of a grey area. Deliberately killing animals with a car is, obviously, as illegal as it is repugnant but what about accidental collisions? ‘It is not illegal and not a crime to eat animals that are accidentally killed on the road by a motor vehicle,’ a spokesperson for the Crown Prosecution Service confirmed. You may have heard that you can’t take animals that you’ve hit yourself but, according to solicitor David Hingston, that’s a myth. ‘Generally speaking, if you killed it unintentionally, it’s fair game,’ he says. ‘No one’s going to prosecute you for picking it up. Poaching laws don’t apply to accidents, and it’s in the public interest to clear carcasses from the roads.’
Tempted? If so, don’t dash off to the hard shoulder of the M25 just yet – there are some caveats when it comes to cooking roadkill. ‘The first rule has to be, don’t risk becoming roadkill yourself by attempting to pick up meat in places where you may endanger yourself or others,’ Drennan warns. Next, check for freshness. ‘If you see the animal being hit, then it’s fresh,’ McGowan says. ‘Don’t pick anything up that’s been badly ruptured or run over a couple of times, obviously,’ recommends Brierley. Clear and bright eyes indicate a recent kill, as does fresh blood. ‘Finally, if it’s a cold winter day, then nature is a really good fridge because it halts decomposition,’ Brierley adds.
While the Food Standards Agency [FSA] doesn’t advocate eating roadkill, enthusiasts insist that the risk of disease has been overestimated. ‘I’ve only got sick once, when I took a chance on eating a penguin I found in Patagonia,’ says Brierley. ‘But I’ve never got sick eating English roadkill – ever.’ McGowan also says he's never had any health problems in 30 years of eating roadkill. ‘In fact, I'd mistrust commercial meat more when it comes to diseases. Just because a wild animal has been hit doesn't mean they're sick – far from it. Even the fittest animal is not going to outrun a car doing 60mph.’ Most diseases can be safeguarded against with careful preparation. Wear gloves, use a clean, easily sterilised place for preparation (Drennan recommends a bath tub), and, above all, cook it well. ‘If it's cooked properly, almost all diseases and pesticides are destroyed,’ says McGowan. ‘There’s not much that can withstand a good boil.’
‘There’s a lot of stigma attached to roadkill,’ Brierley reflects. ‘People do get a bit freaked out. But once it’s on the plate and it looks beautiful, like something you’d get out of a top-notch restaurant, they’ll eat it,’ she laughs. ‘A long time ago, I realised that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with these animals. They’re exactly the same creature you’d pick up at a butcher’s, minus the lead shot.’
So, if you're getting bored of the same old diet, a spot of roadkill might provide some much-needed variety. ‘I've eaten mice, snakes, robins, owls, buzzards, polecats, and otters,’ McGowan says. ‘I'm a sucker for deer and pheasant though, and I love fox. It's delicious – like a very lean, sweet tasting pork. Similar to rat actually. I can't really describe it – you'll have to try it yourself!’
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