One of Britain's most seldom seen creatures, dormice are present only in central and southern England and in Wales (populations existing elsewhere have been introduced). Their numbers have plummeted due to habitat loss, the removal of hedgerows and copses which once acted as corridors connecting larger areas of woodland, and the cessation of traditional coppice management in woodlands. As a result they are protected under the 1981 Wildlife Act and are a priority species for the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, as well as having protection under the EU Habitats Directive and the Bern Convention. You need a licence to even breathe near a Hazel Dormouse and it is illegal to handle them or indeed to look for them without one.
Dormice like hazel coppice where there is plenty of honeysuckle and bramble. They feed off the flowers and fruits and nuts and make their nests from stripped honeysuckle bark woven into a smooth ball which is then covered in hazel leaves.
Nests are made in tree holes, hazel woodlands, hedgerows, scrub and at the base of coppiced trees. Finding a nest of hazel leaves, some brown, some green which has honeysuckle bark in it is indicative of a hazel dormouse. The females weave the young into the woven edges of the central round chamber section of the nest to keep them safe and protected while they are tiny wee. Bachelor nests are notably less neat and tidy than female ones (I kid you not).
Dormice are mainly nocturnal and sleep during the day. They also hibernate longer than any other British mammal, tucking up sometime in October and not waking fully till the following May. They will enter a torpid state if the weather is poor or their foodstuff not readily available, this gives them a better chance of survival. They are largely arboreal, meaning they live their lives in trees, and rarely touch the ground (an adaptation that keeps them safe from predators).
All of this makes them very hard to survey accurately and indeed to find.
As you know, I went out on a Dormouse Survey at a local site earlier this week and despite checking 50 nest boxes over a two hour period, we found not a single Dormouse, or in fact any evidence of one. I am very lucky that I have a friend who now has her Dormouse licence from Natural England, so I am able to join her on these surveys and, because I'm under her tuition and expertise, I'm not breaking any laws by doing so. What I can't do yet is check the boxes on my own.
The terms of the licence are rigorous, with many training sessions and lots of experience of surveying, handling and knowledge of every aspect of Dormouse ecology being required before the licence is issued. This week I have ticked off two or three of the many boxes needed and got them signed, so I am on my way towards getting my licence but I still expect it to be next year at the very earliest before I've done everything I need to in order to be given a licence of my own.
This morning, we all met up again at a different site in the North East of the county bright and breezy (in the drizzle) ready to check another fifty or so boxes. This is a site that has Dormice on it so we were all Quietly Hopeful. Three were found there last month and as I've never seen a Hazel Dormouse in real life before I was very excited that I might finally manage to see one. So excited in fact that I'm not sure I was convincing in keeping it under wraps!
We'd checked most of the boxes with no luck (lots of old bird nests with some dead fledglings in sadly) and seen carpets of beautiful Orchids, grasses and wild flowers on the way when we came to a fenced off area in which four boxes were located. Four of us climbed over the barbed wire to check the boxes while the other two (me included) waited to see whether anything would appear. I think we'd all got used to the boxes being empty by then, so it came as quite a surprise when the plastic bag that's used to put the entire next box in if there's even a hint of a Dormouse present (so you don't lose it) was brought out and one of the boxes was gently removed from the tree. Guess what was inside?
These pictures carry a Cuteness Factor Warning of about a Zillion Trillion, so you have been warned!
|This is MY HAND! With a sleepy dormouse asleep on it! Me! My very own hand!|
He was VERY sleepy and didn't really wake up the whole time we were weighing him and checking him over. If you have very warm hands when handling a torpid dormouse it does bring them out of their sleep quicker, but this little fellow was so reluctant to wake up that when we moved him he just curled tighter round the leaves he was holding and tucked his tail between his paws for extra comfort.
To weigh a dormouse you pop him in a bag and hold him up on the special scales like so....
This little chap weighed 13 grams, so we think he was one of last year's babies. Adults usually weigh between 17-20 grams, depending on how close they are to hibernation. The also get more gingery as they get older- the babies can have quite a lot of grey hair on them.
Once we'd weighed him we returned him to his nest and replaced the box securely in the tree. He barely blinked :o)
Here's a picture of a second (empty) nest that we also found, complete with the woven honeysuckle ball in the middle so you can see what they look like...
Aren't they amazingly clever at making these wonderful beautiful homes?
I'll leave you with a beautiful beech tree deep in the woods who blessed our endeavours. A King Tree if ever I saw one....
And a final piccy of the Dormouse, because I can't get enough of him to be honest...
They really are the MOST ADORABLE little things and I am just so pleased not only to have seen one at long last, but to actually have been able to hold one as well. It made my entire week :o)
Hope you're all well and having a lovely weekend,