John Craven’s last word – On deer, being local and ringing birds

John Craven's monthly musings on rural affairs and country matters

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Take care, deer…
There are now more than 1.5 million wild deer in the UK and sadly quite a few of them come into disastrous contact with vehicles as they wander across woodland roads. Over the years I’ve had several narrow escapes – the closest being at dusk in Scotland when a huge stag appeared from nowhere a few yards ahead. Luckily for us both it ran into the forest.

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Right now – during the rutting season when the animals have other things on their mind – is the worst time for accidents, which is why, if you live in a deer hotspot, you might hear me on your local radio station this autumn. I’m the voice of a new campaign for local radio aimed at making drivers more deer aware. Messages to “watch out – deer about” are being broadcast either side of traffic reports. Let’s hope they do some good because the toll is tragic. Last year there were an estimated 74,000 accidents involving deer and vehicles; several people died and 700 were injured. The cost in medical terms was £32m and the collisions cost £17m in vehicle damage.

Many deer are not killed instantly – they have to be put down at the roadside. More than 10,000 were severely injured, often managing to escape into the woods where many suffered long and agonising deaths. Luckier ones were treated by rescuers from organisations like the RSPCA.

The deadliest hours are from sunset to midnight and just after sunrise. Drivers are being urged to slow down in deer territory but not to swerve to avoid a collision – that could be even more hazardous as they could end up in a ditch or crashing into other vehicles. Should you hit a deer, call for help but don’t approach it – a large, wounded animal is potentially very dangerous.
Worldwide, deer-vehicle accidents (DVAs as they’re known to the professionals who deal with them) are on the increase and a cause for great concern. But I couldn’t help smiling when I switched on the breakfast show on a radio station in St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada and heard drivers being warned there was “a loose moose”.

Are you local?
I’ve often wondered just what defines a rural person. How far out into the sticks must you live to qualify? Well, officialdom has come up with the answer. For administrative purposes, you are classified as rural if you live more than 3 miles from a state school, doctor or dispensing chemist. A dry definition, as you’d expect, and country dwellers can conjure up many better social, historical and emotional ones, but as a practical baseline it’s not a bad start. The average age in rural areas is 42, compared to 36 in urban areas; two-fifths of country folk are over 50 and one in 12 is over 75.

Current affairs
It’s not easy to stay dignified while conducting a TV interview wearing a wetsuit and flippers! I’d just been snorkelling with Nicola Saunders, head warden of Lundy Island, and we were standing in the shallows talking about the marine no-take zone around the island when the under-tow suddenly had me flat on my back, flippers in the air. Expect Anne Robinson to be making some acid comment on Outtake TV!

Ring of truth
Happy centenary, bird-ringers. There used to be an old countryside legend that swallows spent the winter in pond bottoms, but in 1909 groups of ornithologists started to put tags on swallows and many other species. Three years later, in South Africa, a swallow was caught with a British ring round its leg.

One leading expert of the time admitted: “That this swallow, breeding in the far west of Europe, should have reached Natal seems to me extraordinary.” The British Trust for Ornithology, proudly descended from those pioneers, says they set some basic questions: where do our summer visitors go in winter and where do our winter visitors breed?

The Trust adds: “These are still key questions for conservation and we now know the answer for many, but not all, species. Wintering areas of declining birds such as the swift and pied flycatcher remain a mystery, and while we know much about swallows we know next to nothing about the migration of house martins south of the Sahara.”

Ringing also allows ornithologists to discover the lifespan of species. Top of the list is a Manx shearwater from west Wales, which is now 51 years old. It spends every winter in southern Argentina and has flown nearly a million miles!

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