Words & photos by Poppy Smith | Illustration by Matt Ward
It was the middle of the night at the campsite and I’d been asleep for about an hour when I was woken by a rabbit inches from my face, dancing around and waving at me. And before you ask, I hadn’t sampled any of the local mushrooms, I was six months pregnant and we were en route to a wedding up north.
After a few bleary moments I realised it wasn’t alive (anymore, anyway) and that Ted, my boyfriend, was joyfully wearing the head and skin of a rabbit like a hand puppet, having picked it off the road earlier in the day and skinned it with a key ring knife about an inch long.
If Ted sees something dead on the road that doesn’t look too flat he picks it up. He’s been picking dead animals off the road and eating them for about six years, ever since that first plump, still-warm pheasant found on a country lane in the Cotswolds. So far we’ve had pheasants, rabbits, wood pigeons, squirrels and a partridge, but not the Holy Grail of road kill: a deer (more on that later).
Now, there’s a rule about road kill, if you hit an animal you can’t pick it up, but if you’re in the car behind, well the bounty’s all yours. It usually happens like this: we’ll drive past something that doesn’t look too squashed, Ted screeches to a halt at the first opportunity, runs back along the road to pick it up and returns back at the car with a dead pheasant/rabbit/whatever in his hands looking triumphant. We then have to continue the journey with a dead animal in the car.
"Ted keeps the highly nutritious hearts and fries them for a starter, obviously."
After picking up that first pheasant in the Cotswolds, we got back to our home in east London, me slightly uneasy the whole journey about a big, dead (“Is it definitely dead???") bird sat behind me in the car, and googled “How to prepare a pheasant". Skinning it and removing the feathers like a jacket rather than plucking was suggested (far less messy), and to cover the back in bacon so the fat keeps the bird moist during roasting.
Female pheasants have more fat on them than male, but she was still a bit dry so we made subsequent road kill pheasants into stews or pies. Ted keeps the highly nutritious hearts and fries them for a starter, obviously.
So why does Ted, or anyone else for that matter, pick up road kill when you can buy a brace (two – one male, one female) of prepared pheasants for under a tenner at the butcher, or an already skinned and gutted rabbit for £4?
"You know where it’s come from - it’s an animal not just a thing you pick up off the shelf of a supermarket."
“I pick up road kill because it will just go bad on the road and be wasted," he says. “It’s free, fresh meat that should be pretty healthy and probably fresher than what you buy at the supermarket. You get to prepare it yourself, which makes you feel good about eating it and makes you aware of what’s involved in the preparation of meat, and you know where it’s come from - it’s an animal not just a thing you pick up off the shelf of a supermarket."
The best road kill haul was the day he cycled a 140-mile round trip from London to Littlehampton for work, returning like a victorious pre-historic hunter with two rabbits, three wood pigeons and a brand new hat in his backpack, all of which he’d found on the road.
"Is it definitely dead???"
I could barely lift the bag it was so heavy. He’d found all the animals on the journey down and had carried the backpack around all day, as he didn’t want to take it off at the welding firm he was working at for fear of the dead animals stinking out the office. The only time he put it down was for a quick dip in the sea in his underpants before cycling the 70 miles home.
I remember it took him a good few hours to skin and gut all those animals on the kitchen table, thankfully he was pretty meticulous about bagging the guts and putting them out so they didn’t make the kitchen smell. Not like the time he put a rabbit skin in a bag in our dressing room, planning to tan it to cover his BMX saddle with, but left it too long and there was an overwhelming stench of rotting flesh in the flat for weeks.
"He made the rabbits into a stew with cider, shallots and carrots and served it up to some people we’d invited round for dinner."
Anyway, the wood pigeon breasts were lovely, the meat a deep colour and rich in flavour. He made the rabbits into a stew with cider, shallots and carrots and served it up to some people we’d invited round for dinner the following evening. The guests were all pretty good about it and tucked in, whether they were too polite to refuse or genuinely enjoyed it I never asked.
The most disappointing episode for Ted was when he picked up a whole deer in our camper van… “When I picked up the deer I was on the way to work at The Bicycle Academy in Frome, over an hour’s drive away. I had to leave the deer in the van while I worked the whole day. It was summertime so the van got pretty warm inside."
“By the time I got home it had started to expand. It was swelling up, there was some pressure building up inside it, it was obviously not good and it was starting to smell a little bit, so I put it back where I’d got it from. It might have been alright if I’d cut the legs off and just eaten them, but as I didn’t have time to gut it and skin it straight away it had gone bad." I was secretly fairly relieved, imagining a horrendous blood bath when he gutted it, and our freezer being stuffed full of deer with no room for fish fingers.
Oddly, since moving out of London to the countryside, we seem to have had less road kill. Maybe it’s because we now have two children and less time to indulge in the long bike rides that reaped such rich rewards. But Ted has still always got an eye out for a nice, fresh deer.
Ted’s tips for picking up road kill
Watch for traffic when you pick it up otherwise you might become road kill too.
Avoid cycling all day on a hot day with the animals in your backpack.
Have a rear pannier rack on your bike to hang your road kill on.
Carry a knife and a lighter in case you need to stop for a BBQ.
Avoid contaminated meat from burst guts.
Some bruising can be removed from the meat by soaking it in brine.
If a pheasant has rigor mortis, hang it for a couple of days before preparing.
If you find a deer, gut it straight away and open it up to get air into it to cool it down before it goes off.
You can find lots of info on YouTube about how to gut and skin an animal, and road kill recipes.
You don’t need much in the way of tools, I skinned a rabbit once with a one inch blade.
For more on Ted go to Ted James Design