Project Splatter: Revealing the truth about UK roadkill through citizen science

Sarah is a NERC GW4+ funded doctoral researcher with Project Splatter and based at Cardiff University. She completed her MSci Biology degree at University of Nottingham. Her research is focusing on assessing how road mitigation affects animal behaviour and mortality, and how it could be used to aid conservation efforts. 

How often do you notice animals that have been a victim of wildlife vehicle collisions (WVC) along your daily commute or on the way to the shops? Have you ever wondered what the most recorded animals killed on UK roads are? Do you want to help contribute to scientific research into the effects of roads on wildlife?

According to the Department for Transport, there are approximately 247,500 miles of road in the UK and 38.4 million licensed vehicles. It is, therefore, no surprise that roads can have a huge impact on wildlife. Road ecology is an area of research aiming to investigate how, where and to what extent roads affect things like animal behaviour, habitat connectivity and wildlife contaminants. Roads reach all corners of the UK and it is not possible for researchers to directly collect data on such a huge scale. This is where citizen science and Project Splatter come in.

What is Project Splatter?

Project Splatter was set up in 2013 at Cardiff University with the goal to collect roadkill reports from volunteers across the UK. The project relies upon members of the public submitting sightings of any wildlife they spot dead along roads, including details on the species or taxa of the animal, the location of the sighting and the date. Volunteers can also send in photos if they are unsure of their identification skills, though roadside safety is hugely important so no risks should be taken to get a picture! To date, the project has received over 81,000 reports from over 2,600 contributors. Researchers, like myself, can analyse these reports to look at both temporal (time related) and spatial patterns in roadkill, and investigate the different factors affecting the type and number of animals being reported.

So what happens with the data?

Using this volunteer data, the team has already published research on predicting habitat-specific hedgehog mortality risks on roads, long-term patterns in pheasant mortality in relation to management decisions, and the urban-rural gradient of roadkill risk across the UK. Additionally, weekly summaries are published on social media with totals for commonly reported species, as well as any unusual sightings – these can range from herons and long-eared owls to an escapee wallaby! Annual roundups of the top five species reported as roadkill are also released, for instance, in 2020 these were badgers, pheasants, hedgehogs, foxes and rabbits (Figure 1). One recent and exciting area of research involves looking at the seasonal patterns of WVC for the most reported species, using data spanning six years from 2014-2019. We have found that some species appear to have one or two seasonal peaks in roadkill each year, highlighting the need for targeted mitigation when these species are most at risk (In Review).

Badger-995, Pheasant-815, Hedgehog- 677, Fox- 608, Rabbit-476

So what have you found?

The past year and the associated nationwide lockdowns due to COVID-19 have offered an interesting, and possibly once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity to monitor the impact of traffic reduction on animal behaviour.The first major lockdown in March 2020 saw a large reduction in human movement, including the use of roads and transport – this decrease in activity has been coined the anthropause’. Some of the effects of these lockdown periods have already been reported, including a decrease in seismic noise caused by everyday human activity and a distinctive but temporary drop in pollution levels. At Project Splatter, we are currently investigating whether this reduction in traffic impacted upon the species being reported as roadkill compared to previous years (watch this space!).

Research into wildlife-human conflict is an important aspect of helping design appropriate and cost-effective solutions for conservation. For road ecology, these solutions could involve research into wildlife bridges and fencing, to enable animals to safely cross over roads and to provide a link between habitats. Alternatively, modifications to the design of roads or cars could provide a solution to the problems caused by noise pollution and installing signage (e.g. Figure 2) at hotspots could warn drivers to slow down near key crossing areas. Educating the public about both the dangers to wildlife and to humans in WVC is an important part of what Project Splatter does, with the overall aim to work towards reducing and mitigating these potentially fatal interactions

So, how do I get involved?

We are always in need of more volunteers and are happy whether people report one or many roadkill sightings. It is really easy to get involved: visit our website where you can download our reporting app. You will then be able to send us vital information about where and when you have seen roadkill, and what species. Follow us on Twitter to receive weekly updates, notifications of any new publications and to take part in our occasional roadkill-related quizzes. 

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First Published 19th April 2021